You grow up in a place thick with history, the descendant of two families with deep roots in that place.
You were raised by relatives who spent long hours around dinner tables and on front porches telling stories.
You have an older cousin, a geology professor, who takes you fossil hunting and teaches you how to catalogue your finds.
On the way to earning a juris doctor degree at Ole Miss, you earn an undergraduate degree in secondary education because you are curious and that curriculum allows you to sample a range of courses, from art history to the history of Islam to Black history.
It seems inevitable a boy growing up in such an environment with that kind of appetite for knowledge, would either move on to other interests or embrace the history his childhood had been steeped in.
Fortunately, Rufus Ward chose the latter.
“I guess I grew up immersed in history,” said Ward in rare understatement.
We’re sitting in the front room of his home, the “Ole Homestead, ca. 1825.”
Across the street was the site of one of the first structures in Columbus, the house and tavern of Spirus Roach. One block south is Twelve Gables, where in 1866, four women met before going to Friendship Cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers, thus joining Columbus with about a dozen other communities, all who claim to be the home of Memorial Day.
A block north is the first home of Tennessee Williams.
Ward is sitting in an antique loveseat with Lillie, his 3-year-old Llewellin English setter.
The setting seems to affirm Faulkner’s quote about the past not being dead, not even past.
For the past dozen years “Ask Rufus,” Ward’s hugely popular column about local history, has appeared in the Sunday edition of this newspaper.
The subject of Ward’s columns range from steamboats on the Tombigbee River to wildflowers in the Prairie, to the Native American culture that once flourished nearby, to the mixed bag of luminaries, famous and infamous, who have passed this way.
“I can hardly go into a store or business without someone asking me a history question,” said Ward.
That is not a complaint, far from it. Ward relishes the opportunity to talk local history with friends and strangers.
Besides, some of those questions become columns.
When first asked to do a regular local history column, Ward was reluctant. He was practicing law in West Point and wasn’t ready to jump into another obligation.
“I knew when I did this, I would be going down a rabbit hole,” he said.
Ward says he spends seven or eight hours on a column.
“Karen (Ward’s late wife) always said I’d write two or three columns (before I’d write the column I’d turn in). I’m easily distracted.”
Four years ago a New York Times reporter in Columbus writing a piece on the origins of Memorial Day invited Rufus and Karen to join him for dinner on a Friday at J. Broussard’s. Rufus declined, saying he had a newspaper column to write.
The Times reporter asked when was the column due, Ward replied, “Saturday at 5.”
You ought to be fine starting tomorrow at noon, the reporter said.
Rufus and Karen joined the reporter for dinner.
“Now on Saturdays I write my column and a sermon,” he said.
Ward is a lay reader for St. Bernard’s Episcopal Church in Okolona.
I asked Rufus if there’s ever been a time in our nation’s history where the divisiveness rivals that of today.
“People don’t really change,” he said. “The way people address problems hasn’t really changed.
“I blame social media for a lot of the divisiveness. You can say things about people without any personal contact, without looking someone in the eye.”
As is usually the case, Ward has a story to illustrate his point.
“In the 1920s my great aunt’s sister-in-law was married to Upton Sinclair, a Communist, socialist, muckraker, etc., etc.
“The family would have nothing to do with him until they all imbibed too much at a wedding and realized that as long as politics wasn’t discussed, they really enjoyed each others’ company, and they began to socialize.
“Eventually they got so they could discuss politics with respect for each other.
“You don’t get that with social media.”
Rufus on local history
My love for history has been there for as long as I can remember.
My grandmother, Lenore Hardy Billups, started the (Columbus) Pilgrimage (in 1940).
My cousin Jack Kaye got me into fossils. He would take me out collecting and that provoked my interest in an active history.
For a lot of my research I worked with Sam Kaye, Carolyn Kaye and Gary Lancaster. Sam was an encyclopedia of Columbus history.
People’s memory span is only three or four years. I’ll redo an old column with new information, and people will ask me why I hadn’t written on that subject before.
We should look at the total historical record and not just selected facts. Too often people only look at the good or only look at the bad. For instance, a lot of the slave trade originated in New England.
In the 1830s most of the local merchants were against Indian removal. They said, ‘They trade with us. They are our friends. We don’t want to see them go.’
I have a mixed view on Confederate statues. Most of them belong in cemeteries. If they are a work of art, they need to be put in context (with explanatory signage or other statues).
When I can’t think of what to write, I’ll go back into Columbus newspapers 170 or 180 years ago and see what was going on this week.
My other fascination is steamboats. The first steamboat from Mobile arrived March 1, 1823 and the last in 1919.
Mobile (Alabama) newspapers had a lot of Columbus news. Columbus and Mobile were closely tied. The Tombigbee (River) was the Interstate back then.
My favorite era is 1540 – 1825, the development of this area. I’m fascinated by the deSoto Expedition, the Native Americans here and the formation of Columbus.
You don’t get to know a person (on social media).
Birney Imes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.