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Johnny Vardeman: Book weaves Brenau history into memoirs
Johnny Vardeman

Jim Southerland is a retired history professor at Brenau University, his work spanning a remarkable 44 years.

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Jim Southerland's memoir is “Sharecropper’s Son: A Journey of Teaching and Learning.”
That’s remarkable in terms of longevity for anybody in any one place these days. But it’s also remarkable in the varied experiences he had during his tenure there and in his personal life.

He’s got that all down in his memoirs, “Sharecropper’s Son — A Journey of Teaching and Learning.”

The book is pretty much a chronicle of his life, yet it is much more. Woven between his teaching career, travels and personal life emerges a history of Brenau, especially in modern times, though he reaches back into the archives of the earliest days when it was the tiny, but somewhat prestigious, it its day, Georgia Baptist Female Seminary.

The sharecropper’s part of the title comes from his time on a farm, born in 1942 in an unpainted two-room house on a farm in rural Alabama. He got his early education in Columbus, ending up with a doctorate from the University of Georgia. His first teaching job came at then-Brenau College in 1969.

Since then, Southerland has served under four Brenau presidents, each with different personalities, philosophies and emphases. He has witnessed and been a large part of Brenau’s emergence from a small, though respected, women’s college, to an expanded campus in Gainesville to its presence in Atlanta, Augusta and online. 

His book details the progress the school made under each president, and he relates the advancement of Brenau through various staff and departments, dropping names of those who became prominent contributors to the community as well as the college. For instance, he comments on the settling influence Jim Rogers had as president, the emphasis on art by John W. Burd (witness the Burd Theater and the prestigious art gallery), the energetic innovations of the present president, Ed Schrader.

Many familiar names also crop up in the history of Brenau through its benefactors or trustees, too many to mention, but including such people as Sidney O. Smith Jr. and Sr., Lessie and Charles Smithgall, and John W. Jacobs Jr. and Sr.

Though Southerland remained the main history guy in all the changes over the years, he held several positions and played various roles, retiring as provost and vice president of academic affairs. Through his teaching, he traveled widely, sometimes with groups of students, often with his wife Regina, and enhanced his work by visiting places he had been talking to students about through a textbook. He also taught abroad on several occasions. Southerland met numerous celebrities as they visited for symposiums or other activities.

His notoriety in the community and Brenau sometimes earned him an unwanted national spotlight. One of those he tells about in his book is his experience with the infamous Dare Stones, named after Virginia Dare, the pioneer settler who supposedly carved a message in a stone about what happened to them. These date far back in the history of Brenau as one of its presidents, H.J. Pearce Jr., came into the possession of a stone that was reputed to be one carved with a message supposedly from a member of the “Lost Colony,” that group of early American settlers who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Over the years, stories about the stones have cropped up now and then. More recently, history-themed television documentaries have explored them. Naturally, because Southerland was the “history guy” at the Brenau home of the stones, they came to him for comment and expertise. He was a reluctant expert, to say the least. After numerous outside “experts” have examined them over and over, Southerland somewhat hesitantly concludes the original stone might be authentic, yet he hedges, as most others do.

Anyway, it’s an intriguing piece of history and a part of the university’s history. “Sharecropper’s Son” is available at  Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University, the Communications Office, 347 Brenau Ave., at or through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. 

Just as Brenau has grown and developed over the years, so has its name changed. When it was chartered in 1878, the name was “Georgia Baptist Seminary for Young Ladies.” At some point, it began to be called “Georgia Baptist Female Seminary.” It also has been referred to as “Brenau College Conservatory” and “Brenau College and Brenau Conservatory” and “Georgia Female Seminary and Conservatory of Music.” It changed from college to university in 1992.

As Southerland explains in his book, Brenau is a word school owner H.J. Pearce cobbled together from the German word “brennan,” meaning “to burn,” with “AU,” the abbreviation for gold in the old Periodic Table of Elements.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose column appears Sundays. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; e-mail.