Gerald L. Early at the University of Georgia

By Kathleen Lamanna

The University of Georgia’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Alpha of Georgia, celebrated its 100th Anniversary on October 17th. Scott Merkle, past president of the chapter and member of the anniversary planning committee, noted the chapter chose to celebrate the occasion by inviting Gerald L. Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the Department of English and professor in the African and African American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, to give a guest lecture. Early’s lecture entitled “The Birth of the Cool: Race, the Military, and the Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson” was also hosted by the UGA Office of Academic Programs and was the second lecture in the University’s Signature Lecture series. This series features “prominent speakers noted for their multidisciplinary appeal and compelling works,” said Meg A. Amstutz, associate provost for academic programs and the Alpha of Georgia chapter’s secretary, who was instrumental in planning the celebration. 

Early is a respected essayist and American cultural critic who was previously honored by Phi Beta Kappa as a William Jaffe Medal winner for distinguished service to the Humanities. He has several published collections of essays, including The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In addition to his work in cultural criticism, Early is also an anthologist. His most recent edited book is entitled The Best African American Essays 2010. Early serves on multiple non-profit boards in St. Louis, including the Missouri History Museum, the Foundation Board of the St. Louis Public Library, Jazz St. Louis, and the Whitaker Foundation. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, twice guest-editing the Academy’s journal, Daedalus, in the winter of 2011 and the fall of 2013. Early is a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Humanities Center where he was appointed as a John Hope Franklin Fellow 2001 to 2002. 

Early’s visit to the campus also included an engaging conversation with students from the UGA Honors Program and a visit to the university’s Special Collections Library, where he was able to view rare footage in their Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection. Early’s lecture was open to all members of the university community and was held in the historic UGA Chapel on North Campus. The lecture was followed by an outdoor luncheon on the lawn. Chapter President Holly Kaplan noted how appropriate it was to have the lecture in and about the historic buildings of the University of Georgia: “UGA is the oldest land grant college and Phi Beta Kappa has been an integral part of that history.”

In leading up to the 100th Anniversary of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Georgia, the chapter has taken several steps to increase their profile among faculty and students on campus. Each spring, the chapter recognizes an outstanding junior with the Dean William Tate Phi Beta Kappa Scholar Award. This award is named after the late Dean William Tate, who dedicated his life to enriching the academic and personal lives of the students of the University of Georgia. “In honor of the 100th anniversary, we commissioned a new plaque to be made listing the Tate Scholars which will be featured prominently in the Tate Student Center,” said Amstutz. The chapter’s anniversary also was recognized by the university with banners hung around campus noting Phi Beta Kappa and the 100th anniversary. 

Gerald L. Early, Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, Professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis at a luncheon celebrating Phi Beta Kappa’s 100th Anniversary at the University of Georgia. 

Kathleen Lamanna is a senior at Wells College majoring in English with a focus in creative writing and a minor in history. Wells College is home to the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.