Harding professor named to World War I committee

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

A Harding University professor has been named to Arkansas’s nine-member World War I Centennial Commemoration Committee.

Dr. Shawn Fisher, 44, assistant professor of history who specializes in American history, military history and Southern history, was chosen as one of three at-large members by Gov. Asa Hutchinson after meeting the governor when Hutchinson came to the Harding campus.

“When they started this, I was contacted, and they wanted to know if I wanted to be part of it,” Fisher said. “I said yes, and when we got to the first meeting, they said they needed a chairman — ‘Would you do it?’ So I’m the chairman by name, but the guy doing the real work is Mark Christ (community outreach director for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program).”

According to a Harding press release, the committee will plan events and projects for Arkansas’s two-year commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Great War in 2017 and ‘18.

“It is a great privilege to work on this project as we recognize the legacy of the Great War in Arkansas and the Arkansans who served in the war,” Fisher said in the release. “It’s a first for me, to serve on a state committee, but I’m humbled to be able to contribute.”

Fisher graduated from Searcy High School in 1990 and earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1997 and a master of education degree from Harding. He taught in public schools at Bradford and White County Central before returning to Harding to teach. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Memphis in 2013.

He had joined the National Guard at 17, and the GI Bill helped him become the first in his family to earn a college degree.

“I have a very brief military background, and it made a big difference for me, so I have a fondness, an affinity, for the military,” Fisher said. “It’s a pleasure to be involved in this. I appreciate the governor having the faith in me to ask me to do it. I’m just trying to do a good job for the people of Arkansas for this very important historical event.”

Fisher said besides the some-70,000 Arkansans who participated, WWI had a huge impact on the state.

“It marked the beginning of the ROTC program in the state, and it sent a lot of Arkansas boys far away to France,” he said. “In many ways, this is the end of the Civil War and the beginning of a sort of national unity that brings the North and South together for the first time.”

The Great War — the world’s first global conflict — began in Europe on July 28, 1914, and lasted until Nov. 11, 1918. The United States didn’t enter the conflict until 1917, thus the centennial commemoration is beginning next year.

“Right around this time, you had the 50th anniversary of the Civil War, and people from the North and South shaking hands and their sons and grandsons going off to war under the American flag for the first time,” Fisher said. “There was resistance to the draft in Arkansas in several counties, some talk about, ‘No, I’m not going to go fight for the U.S.’ That’s just a very important part of Arkansas’s participation in a national project.”

He said Arkansas lost 1,000-1,500 men in battle but several thousand more to disease, including an outbreak of swine flu following the war that killed a large number of people at Camp Pike (now Camp Robinson) in North Little Rock.

Fisher said the committee’s work now was mainly planning. It is also working to coordinate various groups’ efforts to commemorate the centennial.

“We will serve as a clearinghouse to make sure people are getting approval if they want to say they’re an official event at the state level,” he said. “We’ll have some requests for speakers or materials. We’re putting together books and articles for people to look at about what is Arkansas’s history during the First World War. The state historical department has put together a traveling display they’ll try to get around to all the counties. As I understand it, it’s quite nice.”

Official activities will begin in January. Fisher said the committee has a logo and is working on a website, among other things.

“We have a lot of resources that need to be pulled together,” he said.

Other committee members include Stacy Hurst, director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage; Dr. Raymond Screws, director of the Arkansas National Guard Museum; Dr. Lisa Speer, Arkansas State Historian; Lt. Col. Matt Snead, director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs; Lt. Col. Joel Lynch, public affairs officer of the Arkansas National Guard; Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas; Maj. Gen. Mark Berry, adjutant general, Arkansas National Guard; and Retired Lt. Col. Ken Griffin, military and veterans affairs officer in the Governor’s Office.