Dr. Michael Chiarappa ’81
“I often reflect on how I became a member of the Ursinus community. Coming from a predominantly blue-collar town in Southern New Jersey, I noticed that some of the best students from my high school were attending, or planned to attend, Ursinus. Then, I noticed that one of my best high school teachers was wearing an Ursinus class ring, and when I asked about the school, he replied: “If you get good grades, I will help you get in.” This was the beginning of my lifelong Ursinus odyssey.
I still vividly remember my interview with Kenneth Schaefer and tour of Ursinus on a cold, overcast fall day in 1976. There was a welcoming spirit—an authenticitythat left an indelible mark on me and which over time engendered a soulful sense of place that proved transformative. Being a history major, Dr. Ross Doughty greeted me upon my arrival, and when I heard him lecture in Western Civilization class, the path I sensed for my life was affirmed. Ross was my mentor, a constant source of intellectual inspiration and a model of what I aspired to be as a scholar. Socially, David Rebuck, who was the Associate Dean of Students and my lacrosse coach, helped me negotiate the cultural boundaries that inevitably confront someone from a blue-collar background—challenges needing to be managed if an individual aspires to enter the world of academe.
Over the course of my career as an American environmental and cultural historian, I have constantly taken stock of the intellectual and emotional foundation Ursinus imparted on me. Such reflection has served me well in my role as a university/college professor, but also in my work as a public historian where I work with museums, environmental groups, historic preservationists, government agencies, and communities. I have been fortunate to work on topics, projects, and in venues throughout the United States and abroad. Needless to say, I cannot escape on reflecting on why—given my blue-collar, working-class roots—I was driven to respond to the depth of the American experience and how people’s lives were shaped by their work, the places they built, and the natural resources they used. Was it being on my father’s truck route as a boy during long days driving through Southern New Jersey and the greater Philadelphia area and seeing the range of people and places that made up the region? Was it my grandfather’s abiding love for areas around Southern New Jersey? Or my mother’s encouragement for subjects that endlessly intrigued me? Fortunately, from my perspective, such questions are always with us. Questions frame our individual and collective journeys, fueling passions that hopefully make for a better world. Such sentiment is why I revel in teaching and research on America’s cultural landscapes, maritime venues, architectural legacies, and regional settings. Of course, this lifelong enterprise has not always been seamless.
I remember David Rebuck telling me, during my senior year at Ursinus: “Do not worry about what you are going to do next year, worry about where you are five years from now.” This was sage advice, but it also spoke to something that operated more subtly at Ursinus. Well before the concept of emotional intelligence became fashionable, Ursinus was fortifying confidence and transforming the lives of its students, and I was fortunate to be one of them.” - Michael J. Chiarappa, Ph.D ’81