I first met Ray Sadler when I was a student in search of a major. I took his course on military history mostly on a lark, with no real desire to pursue a degree in a field of study that I was certain was both useless and boring. My ignorance of what history was really like was due to my only previous exposure to history: its being poorly taught high school history by illiterate football coaches.
Learning history from someone who not only enjoyed history, but who obviously enjoyed teaching it was electrifying—every class was exciting and I could hardly wait to do the reading so I could learn more of “the story”. Nor was I alone in this opinion, as an empty seat in the classroom was a rarity. This was where I learned an important lesson about teaching: an empty classroom is a more accurate indication of a poor teacher than of poor students.
A well-taught class can make a tremendous, even a life-changing, impression on students—I was far from the only student in that class who decided to major in history.
Through Dr. Sadler, I also met Charles Harris, his history colleague and writing partner. Together, these two men were to me the very embodiment of how history professors—at least male professors—should act and how they should respect their students. I think the best way to describe these two men is to simply say that they were gentlemen. Though the definition has unfortunately changed over the years, to me, the definition of a gentleman is ‘someone who strives to put others at ease’. I can give you an example.
In that first history class I took with Ray Sadler, just before the midterm exam, a student asked a simple question. “Would Dr. Sadler please clarify which side were the Confederates? The North or the South?”
When this question was asked, I remember staring hard at the student, trying to discover if the hole through his head started in the front or the side. Dr. Sadler, however, answered, “I’m sorry. I should have explained that better, the Confederates were from the South.”
When I started teaching, I discovered that whenever I had a problem in a class, I could best solve it by simply asking myself, “What would Ray Sadler do?” While I doubt that very few would extend the definition of gentleman far enough to include me, remembering the examples of Professors Sadler and Harris did help me frequently while I was teaching. (And a couple of decades later, when a student asked me the exact same question about the Civil War, I could calmly look at the student and say, “Did any of your parents’ children survive?”)
Years later, even though I had continued my graduate studies of history, I had never even considered teaching history, for I knew that such jobs were impossible to obtain. Then, one day Ray called me and asked if I was interested in teaching a weekend college course on the history of Mexico. Truthfully, I wasn’t even remotely interested in ruining my weekends for what I suspected was small pay, but I felt that I owed a deep debt to the man who had first instilled in me a love of history.
“Sure,” I said. “When does it start?”
“The day after tomorrow,” he answered.
Teaching my first class with only two days notice was impossible, but because it was Ray Sadler, I spent the next 48 hours practicing my first lecture in the backyard for the benefit of a few birds. I taught the course, and two more the following semester, and many, many more over the next two decades. Teaching history turned out to be one of the passions of my life and I never would have known this if Ray Sadler hadn’t called me and offered me a classroom. I will never be able to repay that debt to the best professor I have ever met in my life.
It might surprise most people to learn that the only qualification to teach a college course is the right sheepskin—there are no preparatory classes on how to teach, nor does the typical administration really care what happens inside the classroom as long as the student pays for his tuition with a check that clears the bank. It was Dr. Sadler who taught me that the two great reasons for doing your very best in the classroom: your own pride in doing a job the best you could and perhaps more importantly, that you owed a debt to both to the people who had educated you and to the students who had paid to rent the room, turn on the lights, and pay your salary.
As a student, for five years, I took every available class from Dr. Sadler. I have a talent for note taking during class, and quickly learned that if I typed up my notes after class, not only were they easier to study, the simple act of transferring the hastily scribbled notes into legible text reinforced my memory of the subject. As I write this, I can see a whole row of notebooks labeled Cuba, Central America, Military History, Military Intelligence, etc. Years later, when I had taught some of those same classes in the same rooms where I had been a student, I was astonished to discover that many of the lectures I had written contained long passages identical to what was in those notebooks.
I can’t help but wonder how many other teachers’ approach to history was molded by Ray Sadler and, perhaps, whether any of my own former students, who are now teaching their own courses of history, are even aware that they are passing down the words of Ray Sadler. Since Ray once told me that he had calculated that over the years, he had taught something close to 7% of the adult population of the state of New Mexico, he has achieved something close to intellectual immortality.
Ray Sadler, the man, has unfortunately passed away. Ray Sadler, the teacher, lives on in the lives of his students and the students of his students.