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One for the history books

James Barnidge has left Nicholls.

The longtime history professor has bid goodbye to the university, to Thibodaux, to his family, to his home and to his bicycle.

But don’t despair.

He’s left 38 times before, and he’s always come back.

Bringing European tradition to Ardoyne Drive

This past June, Barnidge and a group of 63 students and community members left for Nicholls Europe, the second longest- running international study program in Louisiana. It marked the 39th session since Barnidge invented the program in 1974.

“Imagine a Nicholls student at Mozart’s keyboard in Salzburg,” he says, as if conjuring from a crystal ball, “or a science student at the Tower of Pisa or an art major in the Sistine Chapel. That’s what Nicholls Europe is all about.”

The crystal ball, of course, is a world globe, the conjurings are memories of traveling students, and the magic of it all is seeing the lives of those students change before his eyes. Barnidge’s own life changes, too. Each year he returns from Nicholls Europe with “instant rejuvenation” and new, firsthand experiences to share in his lectures. One year, he returned with a historical European tradition that has become iconic at Nicholls — bicycling to work.

“It’s my forced exercise,” says Barnidge, who has biked the streets of Amsterdam and Paris. Most mornings, however, he can be found on a red bicycle riding across Ardoyne Drive to campus from his home in the Thibodaux Country Club.

Getting it under his fingernails

Early in life, Barnidge began to appreciate history and tradition. The red-haired boy was born and raised on the banks of the similarly colored Red River in Alexandria — not far from the site of Bailey’s Dam, the infamous log and rock structure that raised the river and permitted the Union Navy’s retreat in 1864. He remembers digging as a child, hoping to find bullets and other Civil War artifacts buried in the red soil.

At colleges in the ’60s, “digging history” had multiple meanings. For Barnidge, it meant taking that childhood fascination into the archives at Louisiana State University, where the subject of his master’s thesis was G. Mason Graham, father of that university. He completed the thesis alongside renowned professor T. Harry Williams, whose own research on Huey Long became a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.

How important was that mentorship? “If you’d heard T. Harry Williams lecture, then you’d know what I’m talking about,” Barnidge says. “He just moved an audience.” Not ironically, those who have heard Barnidge lecture know exactly what he’s talking about.

A thing for red-bricked buildings

Barnidge

James Barnidge has led 39 Nicholls Europe trips and taught history to more than 36,000 Nicholls students.

Growing up just a stone’s throw from the red brick facade of Louisiana College’s Alexandria Hall in Pineville, Barnidge found himself facing the similarly colored red brick facade of Nicholls State College’s Elkins Hall in September 1966.

Over the next four decades, Barnidge taught many sessions of 16 different history, humanities and art courses, inventing six of them along the way. In addition, he served for several years as acting department head and assistant to the dean. Despite retirement in November 2005 after 39 years, he has remained a volunteer lecturer to classrooms filled to their brims.

Why? Simply because he wants to. “Being a teacher is what I am, and I want to do it,” he says.

Still? After four decades? “You know what the secret is? You gotta want it. It’s gotta move you. It’s not a job. It’s something you’re deeply interested in. And students can tell.”

One such student was Chef John Folse. During the fall 2011 commencement, Folse received an honorary doctorate. That evening, as Barnidge recalls, Folse called to thank him for stimulating his interest in Louisiana history and, consequently, the traditionalist aspect of his company and career.

“It blew my mind,” Barnidge says. “That he would think about me — driving back home in the dark after he got an honorary degree, thinking enough to call his teacher and say, ‘Thank you’ — that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Crunching the numbers

Twelve to 18 credit hours per semester, up to 45 credits per year, as many as 80 individuals per three-credit class, 800 to 1,000 individuals per year, for 46 years. It sounds like financial analysis. But that wouldn’t be odd to Barnidge, who earned his undergraduate degree in finance and economics from LSU. In fact, his first professional job was as a cost analyst for Kaiser Aluminum in Baton Rouge. He never intended to teach — much less history, which he studied for fun — but a kind boss at Kaiser encouraged him.

Thus, his second professional job, begun only a year later, was teaching history at Nicholls, a job he’s held for 46 consecutive years. Based on the numbers, Barnidge has taught more than 36,000 Nicholls students, many more than any other teacher ever at this university. And if these numbers were indeed financial analysis, they would represent a pretty good return on investment — one with a balance most certainly not “in the red.”

For Barnidge, it’s not a job. Although no crystal ball could have predicted the grand celestial coincidence of red hair, red river, red dirt, red bricks, red bicycle and red mascot, his Nicholls career has certainly been in harmony with the music of the spheres.

And like clockwork, Barnidge has now returned home from Europe for the 39th time. It seems appropriate that the man who presented so much of the world to so many in the Nicholls community has created his own world: When he next bicycles to campus, he’ll be departing his home in the Country Club, a community he helped grow, in a parish under a Home Rule Charter he helped author and in a state under a constitution he helped draft.

How could we ever believe that he’d leave for good?

— Written by Dr. John Doucet, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

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