“To The Stars Over Rough Roads: The Life of Andrew Atchison Teacher & Missionary,” Donald F. Nelson, TidePool Press, Cambridge, 2008. 418 pp., $29.95.
It was as if the end of a buried thread was found, and as it was pulled, unearthed not only the history of an extraordinary man, but also details of part of the country’s history from the end of the Civil War to the settling of the American West.
Oak Bluffs resident Donald Nelson, a research physicist at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey for close to 30 years, and credited with having provided the calculations that made possible the first laser beam in 1960, comes to this task well prepared. He taught physics at Princeton University, University of Michigan, University of Southern California, and after retiring from Bell Labs, Wooster Polytechnic Institute.
He began perusing the remarkable letters collected by his late mother from her father, Andrew Atchison, who lived from 1855 to 1933. Mr. Nelson, with his interest in genealogy, was inspired to compile a 20-page biography to share with the rest of his family, and in the aftermath wound up discovering a wealth of photographs and documented material. The result is “To The Stars Over Rough Roads: The Life of Andrew Atchison Teacher & Missionary,” a fully revealed historic biography of his maternal grandfather.
Atchinson, a devout member of the Calvinist Associate Presbyterian Church, led a life driven by religious conviction, and after the Civil War, dedication to educating freed slaves and Native Americans throughout the South and Southwest. Moving from one disadvantaged community to another, living in 10 states and in Central America, never earning enough to own a home, he committed his life to improving the lot of those disadvantaged and discriminated against.
With a degree from the newly formed University of Kansas (there were 10 in his class), Atchison founded the Freedmen’s Academy of Kansas to educate freed slaves. (The book’s title is a translation from Latin of the state motto of Kansas.) He was principal of the government-run Indian school in Lawrence, Kansas, founded a college in El Paso, Texas, and while the Panama Canal was being constructed, established a school for immigrant Chinese men.
A detailed look
Mr. Nelson, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has saturated his narrative with fascinating historic facts and insights — a wealth of detailed information that illuminates life during the period and creates animated images.
He begins the book in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War. The Atchinson family traveled on the National Road, moving from Ohio to a farm in Berea, Kansas to join a congregation of Associate Presbyterians who had settled there.
Mr. Nelson, who has authored articles on the connection between lung cancer and radon gas, and conducted research to establish the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, as the real William Shakespeare, demonstrates his thoroughness and skill as he writes about farming, about Calvinism, about the family saga, and about the courtship between Andrew and his wife, Florence.
He includes an excerpt of a letter Atchinson wrote to Florence after a meeting at Niagara Falls: “I enjoyed the finest view of nature the better for your presence and you better for its sake and my joy in both was altogether by faith in God. Both you and the Niagara spoke to me of God…” The language, as much as the particulars, add color and dimension to Atchinson’s story.
But the focus is about Atchinson’s commitment to the plight of minorities. In writing about the founding of the Freedmen’s Academy, Mr. Nelson includes the statement of Benjamin Singleton, an entrepreneurial freed slave who formed Tennessee Real Estate and Homestead Association for black settlers: “It was ag’in nature for the masters and the slaves to jine hands and work together. Nothin’ but de millunium could bring that around. The whites had the lands and the sense, an’ the blacks had nothin’ but their freedom — an it was just like a dream to ’em…”
In details, correspondence, and historical grounding, the reader is taken to the troubled multi-tribe boarding school, Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) where Atchinson, the principal teacher, was ultimately forced to resign. He worked to educate Indians at the Seneca, Shawnee, and Wyandotte Boarding School on the Quapaw Reservation, and the Mescalero Tribe.
From there Atchinson made a decision to enroll in Cook County Normal School (1894 to 1896) to enhance his teaching credentials, and he qualified for a professorship at Park College.
Life was challenging and complicated for the undaunted Andrew, Florence, and their three children. Atchinson was dismissed from a college in El Paso for tutoring African-American children. A job at the International Correspondence Schools took him and his son Will to the Panama Canal where he taught immigrant Chinamen and West Indian children who lived in a slum of Panama City. There was a failed business venture, illness, and even revolution in Honduras, but as Nelson compellingly chronicles, Atchinson persevered, a testament to his faith and the strength of his principles.