(Note: I made the following remarks at the funeral of Dr. James K. Huhta on Monday, May 8, 2017, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Jim was the founder of the Historic Preservation Program at Middle Tennessee State University, an early mentor in the field, and—along with his wife Mary who died 11 months earlier—a dear friend.)
I thought I would start my remarks with a history joke…but they’re all too old.
Feel free to groan, because I will keep on with the bad puns and jokes if you don’t. Just as Jim would have done.
In recent days, I have talked with people who knew Jim from all walks of life. We all acknowledge the deep pain of the past year to the family, friends, and this community. But like these friends and colleagues, I want to reflect today on his many accomplishments and his impact on others, before the inexplicable challenges of recent years became too much for him to bear.
Several people recounted how Jim’s optimism for the future set them on a path which they only now recognize as life-changing. His leadership positions in the preservation field were mentioned time and again. Some had personal stories of Jim, Mary, Becky and Suzanne.
But every single person I spoke with mentioned the puns.
It was the articulate humor “with which he approached all of life’s challenges,” as his Advisory Council colleague Tom King phrased it, that was the endearing feature that touched all.
Longtime U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon, who worked closely with Jim on what is now this city’s nationally regarded greenway system, told me that Jim’s most lasting accomplishment was “Holding the world’s record for most puns made as chairman of the Greenway Commission.”
I think Bart was only partially kidding.
Peabody award winning journalist Krista Tippett has written about the link between a sense of humor and wisdom in her book Becoming Wise. She says,
“I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself….There is a science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections, and leaning into them with joy.”
The Jim Huhta I want to remember today had a wise sense of humor and a wisdom that made unlikely connections, which he leaned into with joy. His professional accomplishments were numerous. He was one of the pioneers of preservation education, a visionary working in a multi-disciplinary history program at a time when many of the other schools in this field were focused solely on preservation through an architecture and architectural history lens. Jim once told a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean that “historic preservation is history outside (the) classroom, and it seeks to use our cultural heritage in a variety of ways…for future generations.”
As a pioneer in the field, Jim was sought out for leadership positions here in Murfreesboro, in Tennessee, and across the nation. Locally, he chaired projects to restore the Rutherford County Courthouse as well as open the Stones River and the Lytle Creek Greenways. Jim and former Mayor Westbrooks were the driving forces behind the bicentennial project at Cannonsburgh.
At the state level, Jim authored the plan for a National Heritage Area on the Civil War in Tennessee. When opportunities arose at the national level, Jim was there as well. He was a founder and early chair of the National Council on Preservation Education, served as an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and on the board of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to two terms on the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Jim’s record of accomplishments runs to five single-spaced pages and is a testament to his vision, his indefatigable energy, his love of people, his sense of public service—and his wisdom.
But I want to focus on the intersections of Jim’s life. Just as thriving Main Streets or exemplary historic sites are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways, Jim Huhta lived those intersections of past, present, and future in a very personal way.
Jim had a family heritage that he loved to showcase. It didn’t take long to figure out that Jim was the son of first-generation Finnish immigrants. Usually that information would come out after he told you not to fly on a Finnish airline, because he heard that they sometimes disappeared in Finnair.
I know of students who took pilgrimages to Ashtabula, Ohio, simply because they heard him talk incessantly about his hometown.
But Jim knew that not everyone had a way to connect to their personal past, so he worked hard to get people to look — and treasure — what was around them. In that same Tennessean interview from 1980, he noted that “Most of us have very little feeling for family, community, and local history. But if we would look at the history closest to us, we would have more pride in our communities.”
Jim wanted to know about your past, but more importantly, he wanted you to know about your past.
Understanding the past is important, but only if it connects and is relevant to the present and the future. How one lives right now in community was central to Jim’s understanding of preservation and public service. One colleague who worked with Jim spoke to the “broadmindedness and focus on community” that he brought to historic preservation.
I saw this personally, as Jim pushed this young undergraduate to tackle challenges out in the real world. While students who came into his classroom were often scared by the large pile of books and multi-page syllabus he displayed on day one, once he weeded out those who didn’t want to work, Jim quickly led those who were left out of the classroom and into the community. He had a very robust sense of public service, and Jim worked to instill that same value in those he taught.
But the past and present are still missing a key component if we do not see their connections to the future. I have been working with colleagues across the country on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act to prepare a vision for preservation’s future. In reviewing this work, I’m pleased—but not surprised—to see how much of this vision comes from what I learned 40 years ago from Jim Huhta.
A preservation movement that puts people first is right in line with Jim’s insights that places from our past, reused today, have positive impact on our spiritual, social, and economic well-being in the future. Jim also believed—and lived it in his life and work—that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the American story.
As he talked about Becky and Suzanne, and later his granddaughters Olivia and Catherine, Jim made it clear that he was working at the intersection of the past and present for future generations — future generations where he had a strong and loving personal investment.
People were central to Jim’s life and work, as those of us who made frequent visits to see Jim and Mary at the yellow house can attest. He had a familiarity with people from the past—including those who had often been under-represented—that has resonance today.
As the writer Rebecca Solnit has suggested in writing about indigenous communities, “The people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.” With his work to ensure that the lives and stories of those associated with places such as the segregation-era Bradley Academy were not lost, Jim clearly grasped and shared this concept.
My recollections of Jim always include the people he loved the most—Mary, Becky, and Suzanne—and a wide, generous view of family. Like many students after me, I spent hours talking not just with Jim, but with the family. Jim hired me to help with the landscaping at the yellow house while I was in school, and since he knew that my parents were Baptist teetotalers, he always offered up a beer after the job was finished. When I moved away from Murfreesboro, my mother—who worked at Linebaugh Library where Jim and Mary were among her most faithful clients—would all but encourage me to make a run over to the yellow house when I returned for a visit, so I could enjoy an adult beverage and get caught up on what Jim and Mary were doing. In later years, I would hear of how the Huhtas stopped by to chat politics with my father at his regular table at the City Café. For me and many others, Jim would write exemplary letters of recommendation that would make you blush, but after he sent them off he would bring it back down to earth by telling a bad joke or three. In his own way, Jim let you know that he understood you as a person with a past, present, and future that he embraced and celebrated.
This is a family to which I am clearly indebted, and to which I hold close as they struggle to make sense of that which cannot be understood on this side of life. I can only say that Jim’s life included a large measure of work to hold both people and place dear.
To paraphrase the writer Madeleine L’Engle, these are places filled with people living over centuries of time. Places where a richness of experience permeates the rooms and life is lived to the utmost. Where we experience birth and death. Joy and grief. Laughter and tears. And bad puns.
Jim’s life was meaningful, consequential, and full of wisdom for a better future. And now, the fullness of that life will be in this place and in all of us. May both Jim and Mary rest in peace.
More to come…