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Professor of History
“History has always been my bliss. I have always enjoyed trying to get a full and complete picture. I like to have perspective. And what history allows you to do is get the perspective to understand the present.”
SUNY Brockport tends to attract accomplished faculty and students with combined interests. Here, it is not unusual to find scholar-athletes, scientist-philosophers, and artist-entrepreneurs. But a former lawyer who is also a military/sports historian and an Olympic luge official? That's not one you hear every day.
As a Professor of History at Brockport, Wanda Wakefield's passions are so diverse, it's hard to imagine they are contained in just one person. In her first life, she attended Law School at the University of Illinois, then headed east to Rochester, NY, where she wrote law books for The Lawyers Co-op. She then started her general law practice, but became disillusioned after one of her clients, a disgruntled US Air employee, shot down an airplane.
“This was in the '80s, and it was nationally televised, all over the news,” she says. Although Wanda was her client's lawyer on a completely unrelated issue, the incident shook her up. “The scary part was that I found him to be one of my most congenial clients, not someone with murderous impulses. After that, I knew I had to do something different with my life.” So she quit her law practice and went back to grad school at The College at Brockport for her masters degree in history, and then to The University of Buffalo for her PhD. She taught history for a few years at Middle Tennessee State College, then came back to teach at Brockport.
As an historian, Wanda's specialty is military and sports history. She has published a book called, Playing to Win: Sports in the American Military, 1898 to 1945. At the College,she teaches World History of Sport, American History, an occasional graduate seminar, and Ancient Greece, particularly as it pertains to Olympic sport.
Wanda says, “Sports history is not about who wins or loses, but about culture and change as they're reflected through sport.” For example, she teaches the history of American labor relations by looking at the baseball players association. “Baseball players were originally independent contractors, organizing their own games,” she says. “Then in 1876 they lost their autonomy and became employees just as craftsmen did during the Industrial Revolution.” This completely changed the nature of the sport, and reflected trends in labor at the time.
Wanda also teaches in Delta College, Brockport's college-within-a-college, a highly selective undergraduate program that focuses on academic professionalism, career preparation and exploring larger issues. Wanda says, “Delta College allows me to teach outside my comfort zone.” For example, she says, a few years ago, her Delta College class studied water. “We studied water with regard to four major rivers.” she says. “We looked at pollution, history, ecology, issues of the industrial revolution, who owns water, legal issues, and so it's an integrated opportunity to understanding a particular issue in-depth.”
So how in the world did she get to be an Olympic luge official? Wanda says, “In 1988, I was still in law but on the way out, and I went to Lake Placid because they were having Olympic trials. The luge just fascinated me.” When, she came back to Rochester, she wrote to the Luge Office to say how much she enjoyed the competition. On the spot, they asked her to be an official. She was trained, qualified as a National Official, worked some races, and then took the test to be an International Official. She then went to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and has since been an official in several championships and World Cups. She says of the Olympics, “They were everything I'd anticipated-- thrilling, hard work, very long hours - and every single second of it was worth it.”
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” As she writes her own history, Wanda Wakefield is sure to have many lives, many talents, and many surprises still to come.