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Bayou Icon: Richard Chardkoff

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Icon
Jan 26th, 2014
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Chardkoff JAN14
article by Michael DeVault | photography by Maré Brennan

At one point, Richard Chardkoff oversaw the academic careers of more than ten percent of the ULM student body. He traveled Latin America to research his dissertation on the 1944 Guatemala Revolution. He taught for 36 years and was recently appointed professor emeritus at ULM.

Along the way, Chardkoff found the time to write two major historical works chronicling critical moments of World War II through the perspective of individuals who lived the events.

For any one of these accomplishments, Chardkoff deserves recogniztion. Yet, because all of them are true, Chardkoff is a Bayou Icon, recognition he protests he doesn’t deserve. “There are so many more deserving people,” Chardkoff told BayouLife, when asked to sit for this interview. The statement is just one example of a quiet, sometimes self-depricating humility that quickly becomes one of Chardkoff’s most endearing traits.

He first came to Monroe from Florida in 1971, to take a job teaching history survey courses in the ULM Department of History. His wife, Joan, accompanied him with their young daughter.

The Chardkoff family settled in Town & Country, which was at the time a new subdivision filled to capacity with academics from the university. “It really was an academic enclave at the time,” Chardkoff recalls.

For the next 36 years, through the birth of a second daughter, a move to a charming Garden District home and an eventual retirement, Chardkoff slowly and methodically dissected Latin American and American history for students at ULM.
But, like the history he teaches, Chardkoff’s narrative is incomplete without the backstory. He had received his PhD in History from Florida State University after a bachelor’s degree in history at Vanderbilt, where he discovered his love of history.

“I was always intrigued by history, and while at Vanderbilt, I had a couple of professors in my core curriculum who really steered me in that direction,” Chardkoff says.

Once he had settled on history, he needed to pick a specialty. Again, he turned to the Vanderbilt faculty for guidance. One of his professors taught Latin American history. “I was so transfixed with his lectures and with the history and cultures of Latin America that I just wanted to explore it more,” Chardkoff said.

Chardkoff’s life took an interesting turn when a college buddy invited him for a week-long visit to Toronto over break. “The short of it was, I didn’t have the right clothes,” Chardkoff says. “I nearly froze!” Underdressed and cold, Chardkoff nevertheless agreed to go on a blind date.

“They told me to break the date, because he was a hillbilly,” Chardkoff’s wife, Joan, recalls. But, she didn’t break the date. Instead, for several years they corresponded by letter. The courtship culminated when Chardkoff spent a summer in Toronto working.

“That was it,” Chardkoff says. “We got married, and she transferred from the University of Toronto to Florida State.”
By the time the couple married, Chardkoff was well into his PhD coursework. Also, he was beginning to study the 1944 Guatemala revolt that overthrew dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.

After Florida State awarded him the PhD in History, Chardkoff and Joan relocated to Panama, where he taught at the American University there, to “fulfill my obligation to Uncle Sam,” he says.

A commissioned captain in the Army, Chardkoff served out his time as a professor, teaching American history. His time in Latin America also afforded him the opportunity to travel the region, furthering his expertise in the field.

By 1971, though, with a young daughter at home and a future to build, Chardkoff accepted a job at a little state school in Louisiana. Then known as Northeast Louisiana University, the history department was 16 strong, highlighting for Chardkoff just how much has changed in his time at ULM.

“Today, there are six,” Chardkoff notes. “That gives you an idea of the downsizing.”

Like so many other academics who joined ULM’s ranks during the 1970s, Chardkoff would remain well beyond retirement eligibility. Chardkoff’s students were thankful for those extra years, too.

Sunny Meriwether was one of Chardkoff’s students.”He was immensely knowledgeable and extremely engaging in the classroom, always enthusiastic about the subject and never boring,” says Meriwether. “He encouraged me to go to law school and wrote one of my recommendations.”

Another student recalls Chardkoff fondly, as well. “I had him my first semester of my college career,” says Mindy Arender, who is now completing her bachelor’s of history at Middle Tennessee State University.

Arender credits Chardkoff with her decision to study history. “Until taking Dr. Chardkoff, I had no interest in history. My love for history stemmed from his lectures and the five seconds he took to acknowledge my efforts in his class,” Arender says.

Part of her love of history began because of the mystique Chardkoff brought to the subject.

“He really intrigued me because he was the only professor I had and have had since that really embodied what I had long since believed college to be,” Arender says.

That’s not to say his courses were easy. In fact, both Arender and Meriwether note how challenging his classes were—especially his tests. Yet, Arender says, she worked hard and, eventually, she scored an A in his class. “The following semester, I changed my major to history,” Arender says.

Meanwhile, Chardkoff worked diligently in a side endeavor. He was the general studies advisor, overseeing the academic careers of students who chose to major in general studies—a sweeping portion of the student body.

At one point, Chardkoff was advising more than 800 students, when the typical faculty member might advise a couple dozen.

“At that point in time, there was a period where I couldn’t do any writing at all,” Chardkoff says.

The decades marched on and advisee folders piled up. But he wasn’t going to be without a pen for too long. Chardkoff’s world was getting ready to change again.

The election of Edwin Edwards in 1992 had highlighted a growing problem in Louisiana. David Duke, a former klansman, had received a significant part of the vote and had even made it into the runoff.

In 1993, Stephen Spielberg released Schindler’s List, a sweeping epic chronicling the Holocaust from the perspective of Oskar Schindler, who worked to save as many Jews as he could.

Monroe resident and businessman Sol Rosenberg had reason to be afraid of the near election of Duke, an avowed anti-Semite. He had lived through the Holocaust.

It was time to tell Sol’s story.

“It was his wife who contacted me,” Chardkoff recalls. Through a series of interviews, in-depth research and more than a little prodding, Chardkoff wrote Sol’s Story: A Triumph of the Human Spirit.

Part of the challenge of reconstructing an accurate narrative of Rosenberg’s experiences involved getting events aligned in the right order. “There were no calendars in the death camp,” Chardkoff says. “It took a long time to piece together the chronology of events.”

Also, too many of Rosenberg’s stories were too graphic to share, shocking even a steely historian like Chardkoff. “There were stories he told me that I thought were so horrific,” Chardkoff says. “I couldn’t put them in.”

Rosenberg also self-censored much of his stories, Chardkoff says, which only added to the difficulty. Eventually, though, a narrative began to emerge, and in 2002, Sol’s Story was published.

Almost immediately, Chardkoff was approached about another project. Like Sol Rosenberg, this story was centered around a group of extraordinary individuals—and rooted firmly in the psyche of World War II.

The Selman Field Historical Association reached out to Chardkoff to ask if he would be interested in capturing the history of the fliers who passed through the navigation school there.

Chardkoff thought about it, did a little digging and made a realization. “People here had forgotten Monroe’s role in helping win World War II,” Chardkoff says. “That’s what set me on the path of writing The Flyboy Heroes of Selman Field.”
Chardkoff grows quiet when he discusses the men who trained at Selman Field. Like all of America’s Greatest Generation, the number of Selman Field veterans is diminishing quickly. More than a thousand World War II veterans pass every day.

“They are dying so quickly,” Chardkoff says.

The rate at which history was disappearing quickened Chardkoff. Already, the Selman Field association had ceased having annual reunions. The largest reunion had drawn more than 500 veterans. The last reunion a few years ago drew just 30.

“They don’t have reunions anymore,” Chardkoff says.

For Chardkoff, it’s impossible to understate the contributions the graduates of the Selman Field navigator’s school had to winning the war. These airmen guided virtually all of the United States bombers to targets in Europe and the Pacific theatre.

And, underneath the surface of it all—the studies of the Guatemala Revolution, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Sol Rosenberg’s life and the heroes of Selman Field—Chardkoff found the importance of a life of study.

“The tragedy is, as I wrote, I realized history does repeat itself,” Chardkoff says.

He points to Cambodia, to Rwanda, to Serbia, and in each case, he says a holocaust occurred there. These tragedies underscore, for him, the importance of teaching and studying history.

“People tend to forget,” Chardkoff says.