For my public historian interview, I spoke with Frank Thomason, PhD.
Dr. Thomason has an impressive set of credentials, having earned four degrees in history (a goal for all of us to aspire to!). He was also a Fulbright Scholar. He currently serves on both the Eagle and Meridian Historic Preservation Committees. He is a published author of several books, including histories of Boise and Meridian. Dr. Thomason is also the owner, editor and publisher of The Valley Times, a weekly newspaper serving the western Treasure Valley. I am extremely grateful that he took time out of his very busy schedule for this interview.
Please describe your educational background.
Following high school, I earned four degrees, all in U.S. and European history: B.A., The College of Idaho, 1970; M.A., University of Utah, 1972; M.S., The Johns Hopkins University, 1974; and Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University, 1979.
I also have teaching experience at the college or university level at the University of Maryland, West Berlin, 1974-76; The College of Idaho, 1977; and University of Southern California, 1980.
Please describe your role on the Historic Preservation Committee.
I am the Chairman of the City of Eagle’s Historic Preservation Commission, responsible for preparing and e-mailing the monthly agendas and sharing the workload with other Commissioners on various projects including the Quarterly Speaker Series (I brought Lincoln historian/author David Leroy to Eagle last January; I have also been a member of the Meridian HPC for over 20 years and am happy to announce that Leroy will reprise or repeat his presentation in May in Meridian) and historic signs for the National and Municipal registers of historic places.
What do you see as the primary challenges that historical preservation groups face?
Ongoing degradation and demolition of historic buildings, especially outbuildings and houses on former farmsteads; lack of funding for various projects; and bringing in newer and in some cases younger Commissioners to carry on the work.
Please describe other historical work you’ve been involved with.
I am a published author of three history books, The Berlin Police in the 19th Century, Tabletop Publications; Boise by Arcadia Publishing and Meridian by Arcadia Publishing.
In the mid 1970s I spent 25 months as a Fulbright Scholar to West Berlin, where I was enrolled full time as a graduate student, taught classes in European and Russian history in the evening and conducted a program of graduate research at archives and libraries in West and East Berlin and Germany.
In the early 1990s, I devoted two years as a volunteer officer of the Friends of the Historical Museum, a statewide group based in Boise. Our major project was an update of biographical sketches with photos of Idaho’s First Ladies. I was and remain the only male officer of that organization.
What advice would you give to “new” historians?
Specialize as early as possible and become a foremost authority on that specialization. At the same time, remain a generalist in your increasing knowledge of different fields and approaches. This may result in synchronicity at some point, e.g., you might find work in a related field even though it’s not your primary one.
Find another field and develop it along with your history studies as a practical matter of adaptation and survival in this very tough economy. Actual jobs for trained historians are scarcer than ever, so it behooves budding historians to branch out and add one or more fields to their resume. Examples might be computer software programming, English (also not very practical in a direct sense), journalism or even anthropology or archeology, which involve approaches similar to or compatible with history.
If there was one skill you wished you had learned earlier, what would it be?
Computer programming and web sites, as well as social media. They are all the rage now but in 1979, nearly a decade before the advent of personal computers, I typed my doctoral thesis for Johns Hopkins on an IBM Selectric typewriter (the one with the “flying ball”).
Thank you again to Dr. Thomason!