Writing on the Rails: Professor H. Roger Grant makes ‘time enough’ to write and write
Roger Grant is a man of impressive numbers.
He’s been teaching history in universities for 47 years, 21 of those at Clemson University. He’s held three named, distinguished professorships and has collected an honorary doctorate from Simpson College, a liberal arts college in Iowa.
Grant has published 33 books, has two more in final edits with the publisher, and is already well into researching and writing book No. 36.
“I’ve got enough ideas for the next 200 years,” he said from his colorful office in Hardin Hall, where he is surrounded by books he’s written and many others that cite him.
His life’s work is mainly about railroads and rail companies but Grant also explores the history of American transportation, putting railroads in the larger context of the history of America and its towns and industries.
As a prolific researcher and writer on the popular topic of railroads, Grant is well-known and esteemed among academics and general railfans alike.
His “Rails to the Front: The Role of Railways in Wartime” was published last spring by Karwansaray Publishers in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. “John W. Barriger III: Railroad Legend” is scheduled for release next spring by Indiana University Press, which has also slated “Transportation and the American People” for publication in 2019.
Grant said he is currently slogging away at a history of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, the railroad made famous by the Lead Belly folk song “Rock Island Line.”
“Roger’s work is inspirational for our other faculty,” said James Burns, chair of Clemson’s History Department. “He fires on all cylinders. And when someone is so prolific and on top of their field — while also teaching popular classes and serving the department — it sets a healthy and inspiring pace. He is one of several professors that make our department the best in the Southeast.”
Experiencing Grant’s infectious enthusiasm and energy make it slightly easier to understand how this man accomplishes so much. Grant insisted we all can make “time enough” to do what we really want. And in Grant’s case, what he wants to do is learn more about America’s railroads, from tiny, failed lines in South Carolina to thriving rails that united towns and changed industries.
Grant said he doesn’t like to read fiction in his free time. Instead, for fun, he reads about railroads, historic companies and former railroad tycoons. Even on vacations, he sneaks book editing notes past his wife, Martha, so he can work on them during found moments.
He said he strives to “write for the largest audience,” arguing that too many academics write only for each other. And to appeal to all kinds of readers, Grant finds it best to avoid jargon and to always frame stories in a larger context. “My wife is my best critic,” he added. “If she doesn’t understand it, there’s a problem.”
The railfans around the country who read his books are part of what inspires Grant to keep writing. “The best letter I ever got – so wonderful – I got in 1985 from a woman in Oelwein, Iowa,” he said.
Her husband had been a fireman and later an engineer on the Chicago Great Western Railway. When the man was dying of cancer, his wife read to him from one of Grant’s books. For those 10 or 15 minutes a day “he just lightened up,” she said.
“If I brought happiness to somebody on their deathbed, what a wonderful, what a marvelous, commentary,” Grant said.
Grant’s research resonates with his students, as well as fans of his books. He brings to the classroom decades of first-hand experience in field research and the ability to frame historic events into larger context.
He believes the shared experiences help to “add depth” and “share enthusiasm” in humanities research. In telling stories about his own work, Grant is teaching undergraduate and graduate students how best to collect oral histories. One student recently used these lessons to conduct six interviews around Upstate South Carolina to research the desegregation of schools in Greenville.
Clearly, history students respond well to Grant’s teaching methods, enthusiasm and well-prepared lectures.
“Many students will say nice things about a professor,” Burns said, “But students line up to fill Dr. Grant’s 8 a.m. classes. That speaks for itself.”
In spring of 2018, Grant will teach a course in local history and another on the history of American transportation, a topic he said is only offered at a few other history departments across the country.
“Students say I’m never boring,” Grant beamed. His wide and appreciative readership would certainly agree.
C. Claiborne Linvill is a freelance writer, the president of Rock Creek Communications and a graduate of Clemson University.