Friends, family reflect on life of Texas historian
Aug. 15, 2013 at 3:15 a.m.
As one of Victoria's leading historians, Charles Spurlin set into a motion a plan to preserve the past and to educate generations of Texans.
The published historian and longtime Victoria College professor died Thursday in Victoria. He was 81.
The cause was a six-year battle with prostate and colon cancer.
Mike Hummel, a former student of Spurlin's, called him "a historian's historian."
"His articles and books opened some new grounds of information," Hummel said. "His works were readable and substantive, and historians know a bit more about Texas and local Victoria history thanks to his work."
Spurlin, who taught history at Victoria College from 1961 to 2003, wrote several books and articles on the Civil War in Texas and Victoria's history, including "Port of Victoria," "West of the Mississippi with Waller's 13th Texas Calvary Battalion," "CSA," "The Civil War Diary of Charles A. Leuschner" and "Texas Volunteers in the Mexican War."
The two were officemates at Victoria College for about 15 years and taught side-by-side.
Hummel said Spurlin was kind, full of life and outgoing - a leader who wanted to share information across the community.
He played a key role in establishing the Lyceum Lecture Series and the John W. Stormont Lecture Series on South Texas, with the goal of sharing knowledge.
"The lyceum series is an impressive legacy to Charles Spurlin," Hummel said.
Jimmy Goodson, the former president of Victoria College, said Spurlin's death is a loss personally and to the community.
He enjoyed the kind of reputation every teacher wants, Goodson said.
"He was well-thought-of by his colleagues, both those within his discipline and those outside," Goodson said. "And he was highly regarded - even revered - by his students as someone who was fair, capable, competent and concerned about their welfare."
Longtime friend, former county judge Helen Walker said she met Spurlin and his wife "when we were both way-out-there Democrats" in the 1960s through the Democratic Women's Club.
Spurlin was involved in the infancy of the Museum of the Coastal Bend, as well as the committee that raised more than $1 million for the restoration of the Victoria County Courthouse.
"He was a longtime good friend, and he'll be sorely missed," Walker said. "He did a lot for our history. He was a very brilliant man."
Spurlin was born Aug. 4, 1932, in Franklin, and soon after, moved to Mart, where his parents, the late Robert Jerry "R.J." and Effie Mae Freeman Spurlin, ran a grocery and meat market.
After graduating from Mart High School, Spurlin enlisted in the military, served in the Korean War and was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge and the Purple Heart.
While stationed in Des Moines, Wash., he met his wife, Patricia Agnes Liston. The couple married Nov. 26, 1953, and had five children - Cynthia Ann, Debra Sue, Charles Jr., Preston David and Steven Michael.
Charles Spurlin Jr. said his father was involved in more than academics; he was a founding member of the Victoria Girls' Softball Association.
"He was a great father and a great husband," Charles Jr. said. "He loved us, and we learned a lot from him."
Steven Spurlin said his father instilled in him lifelong lessons, which he plans to pass to his children.
"He always told us, 'If you're going to do it, do it right,'" Steven said. "'If you're going to dig a ditch, be the best ditch digger in the world.' That stuck with us."
As he lived his own life, Spurlin also taught his children the value of putting others before oneself and living a positive life.
"He was a marvelous man to know," Steven said. "You couldn't go to a store without someone going up to him and saying they had him in class. People always recognized him. He touched many lives."
Even as he battled prostate and later colon cancer, it seemed every nurse who cared for him knew him or had him in class, Spurlin's wife, Pat, said.
Although he couldn't remember all his students' names, his wife said he would ask the nurses what grade they made before he let them work on him.
As the cancer metastasized into his lungs, Spurlin never gave up.
"He was given terminal time, and he outlived it," Steven said. "He was a fighter till the very end."
That's how Kay McHaney, secretary/treasurer of Victoria Advocate, will remember him.
"I absolutely loved him coming to my office to visit. He was interested in everything - the entire spectrum," McHaney said. "In spite of his illness, he just kept on doing all he could do."
Spurlin helped McHaney publish a book about Victoria's history called "Our Part of Texas: Faces and Places."
McHaney, who serves on the board of the college, said Spurlin's death leaves a hole in the area's knowledge of history.
"It's overwhelming to think he won't be around to be a part of all this that goes on for now," McHaney said. "He was invaluable to the college and respected by all in his field."
Spurlin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Texas Tech University in 1956 and a master's degree from Sam Houston State University in 1961.
He served as chairman of the Victoria College Social Sciences Department and director of the Texas and local history collection in the Victoria College/University of Houston-Victoria Library.
He organized the Korean War Conference in 2010, which commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Forgotten War and brought longtime friend and nationally known journalist Jim Lehrer back to Victoria.
"Charles was truly a great and delightful man," Lehrer said. "He was a scholar who knew how to think and to talk and to laugh. He was my friend, and he was a friend to all he touched and surveyed. Victoria and its history will never be the same nor told so well now that Charles is gone. I will miss him. And so will everyone in Victoria - even those who didn't know him."