LIVING HISTORY: Portraying historic figures retiring professor's trademark

By Dick Mason, The Observer June 25, 2012 12:00 am

By Dick Mason

The Observer

Retiring EOU history professor Greg Monahan, always one to speak out for what he  believes is right, felt an ironic sense of frustration 20 years ago.

 Monahan, giving a living history portrayal of Christopher Columbus  in Ukiah, Calif., for a Chautauqua program, found himself in the awkward position. The well spoken professor, using all the discipline he could muster,  was telling  a  small crowd the opposite of what he believed.

Monahan was being confronted by a group of Native Americans who  were protesting the appearance of  “Columbus,’’ pointing out that he enslaved their people and treated them inhumanely.  

Monahan the historian, knew in his heart that Columbus was responsible for atrocities to Native  Americans, but as a thespian portraying him he had to stay in character. 

“I reacted as Columbus would have,’’ he said. “I accused them of lying, I was defensive.’’

So convincing was Monahan the actor that later the Native Americans told him that they appreciated the opportunity to talk to the explorer and “…ask Columbus questions  ‘we never got a chance to.’ ‘’

Monahan, by not stepping out of character, had remained true to his craft — one he has practiced with such skill at EOU that it has defined his legacy as a professor. In addition to his public performances as Columbus,  he has given close to 200 living history presentations for his classes, portraying George Washington, a Nazi SS agent, a French duke, a Roman senator a Bolshevik commissar in Russia and many others.

All are characters now  silent  on Eastern’s campus for Monahan is set to retire at the end of this month. Gone will be the days in which faculty and community members come to sit in on Monahan’s classes to see a professor make history spring off the page  as he portrays a historical character.

The portrayals, all in costume, involved significant additional work for Monahan but he speaks of them like they were a labor of love.  

“I looked forward to doing them because I know the students liked them and I like an audience,’’ Monahan said.

 Rebecca Hartman, an EOU history professor, said that while Monahan’s  portrayals are  entertaining people need to remember that they also are well researched and gave  students a true feel for what life in the past was like.

“They allowed students to use their historical imaginations,’’   Hartman said.  “…They let them see that people didn’t follow the same code of behavior we do today, our world is very different.’’

 Monahan started his living history portrayals, ones in which students interact with him, about three decades ago while a graduate student at West Virginia University. Monahan was teaching a history class there and had just given the students a very tough test.

“I thought it would be good if they had a slight break.’’ 

Monahan decided to portray a old monk who had been a soldier during Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which ended the Roman Empire. 

“He (the old monk) remembered details vividly. It was a lot of fun activity,’’ Monahan said.

Monahan’s   performance  was well received and made an impression far deeper than he realized.

Weeks later Monahan  was analyzing exam scores when he discovered that  students demonstrated better recall of the facts concerning the  Fall of Constantinople than any other part of the class he had taught. He realized that his character portrayal had deepened his students’  understanding of one of history’s most significant events.

“I found that the  best way to learn about the Fall of Consantinople was to talk to someone who was in it,’’  Monahan said. 

Most of these characters are individuals Monahan created to symbolize a specific group from a time in history, not actual people with biographies.  Monahan  said playing  characters he invented is far  easier because there are no wrong answers for personal questions. 

 “When  you are playing a real person you have to be more precise,’’ Monahan said. “…Generic characters who are accurate to the period are easier to play.’’

Columbus and Washington are the two real characters Monahan has portrayed.  He read everything he could on them and learned his share of fascinating information about them, particularly Washington. Monahan learned for example, the Washington’s false teeth were usually made of ivory, not wood. These dentures were imported from England. This meant that during the American Revolution when trade with England was cut off Washington could not get ivory dentures and   briefly had to wear wooden ones. 

 The EOU professor also discovered many things about out first president which are not common knowledge.

“I learned that most  of his best  friends were women.’’

He also found that Washington was thin skinned when it came to criticism.

“He did not like newspapers (because of the criticism they leveled),’’ Monahan said.

The EOU professor began playing characters in his classes not long after coming to La Grande in 1986. Greg  and his late wife Rita moved to La Grande because of two job opportunities. He had been  hired as an Eastern history professor, and Rita, an RN, had landed a teaching position at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Nursing at Eastern. 

At Eastern Greg Monahan shared not only  his fascination  of history with students but  also his love of jazz. Monahan did so by  hosting a weekly jazz radio program   on KEOL, EOU’s student radio station. His Sunday morning show has been regularly heard on KEOL  for the past 26 years. His last program  aired Sunday night. 

“I love jazz and this gave me the opportunity to share my affection for jazz music,’’ Monahan said.

Getting to the radio station  in the  1980s was difficult because KEOL was then located on the upper level of Pierce Library, which was often closed when Monahan’s show aired. This meant Monahan had  to use an unconventional route to reach  KEOL’s studio.     

“Sometimes I would  be climbing up the icy fire escape while carrying records,’’ Monahan said.

Monahan  has also pursued his love of theater at Eastern, appearing in numerous EOU productions at McKenize and Schwarz theaters in Loso Hall. Some of Monahan’s initial performances were at Eastern’s original  No Name Theatre which was located in Hunt  Hall.

“It was a very intimate setting,’’ Monahan said.

He said he loved the old theater but it did not compare to the more modern and spacious McKenzie and Schwarz theaters which opened in 1990.

Monahan has enjoyed performing on stage but said the satisfaction he derives does not match that enjoyed by connecting  with students and helping them develop.

“It is fun to watch them develop a command of learning and discover themselves,’’ Monahan said.

The sense fulfillment an educator feels is heightened when students grasp a concept for the first time.

“All teachers live for the moment the light bulb goes on,’’ Monahan said.

He describes being around students as invigorating.

“It is fun, it keeps you young.’’

At Eastern Monahan pushed for the establishment of the university’s first  faculty union and was among its first presidents. He played a key role in getting Eastern’s first faculty contract negotiated.

“I’ve been devoted to trying to improve faculty salaries and benefits for  many years,’’ Monahan said.

  Monahan will soon move to  Portland where  his son Andrew and his wife Laura Villani live.  Andrew and Laura have three sons, all of who Monahan is looking forward to spending time with. Greg Monahan  also has a daughter Cathy, a Montana resident, who he is looking forward to spending more time with.

 The historian  will be accumulating many frequent flier miles in retirement for he will continue making regular  international trips. France, a nation whose history Monahan has researched extensively, is one of his favorite destinations.  

The historian said he will miss almost  everything about living in  La  Grande from the students and faculty at Eastern, to seeing community  members at the post office and Safeway.

“This is a special place, I could sense that as soon as I came here.’’

Monahan, during the course of 26-year  at Eastern, developed a reputation for being a demanding professor, one he said is well deserved.

“I always challenged my students, I was paid to challenge  them.’’

Th web site reflects indicates that Monahan did not alienate his students by pushing them  hard but instead won them over. 

EOU students, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, rated Monahan 4.8 for  “overall  quality’’ but only 1.6 for “easiness.’’   That Monahan was so popular among students despite his tendency to  push them hard is likely is a credit to  his character portrayals and other steps he took to make history come alive. 

“Students will forgive you for making them work hard if you make the classroom a fun place to be.’’