Bringing his worldly travel experiences into the classroom is how retired St. Clair High School teacher Ben Brown, 77, taught his students about history.
Going into the educational field was not his first career choice, Brown said, as he first studied to be an accountant in college. He added that his grades were As and Bs in one particular accounting class, however, his professor gave him a D.
His professor told him, “I just don’t think you’ll make a good accountant. I just don’t think you have it in your bones,” Brown said.
The professor’s advice led Brown to his true passion — history.
In 1965, he graduated from Missouri State University with a bachelor’s in education with a focus on history and a minor in political science. His three favorite historical periods are ancient Egypt, ancient Maya and the medieval era.
Brown’s teaching career began as a social studies teacher for Sullivan C-2 School District from 1965-1967 before he was stationed in Germany with the United States Army from 1967-1969.
“Anytime I wasn’t needed on my military base in Germany, I traveled,” Brown said. “There wasn’t a weekend that I didn’t use those 36 hours to go somewhere.”
While in Germany, he studied medieval history at the university of Wurzburg and for his classes, he was required to travel to historic sites, That included castles dating back to the 10th through the 13th centuries.
“A lot of castles, after wars, were renovated, so they weren’t the real castle you were looking for,” Brown said. “I preferred ruins to pristine castles because in a ruin, no one is going to say, ‘Don’t touch.’ Everything is open to you.”
One castle he recommends visiting is the pristine Warwick castle located in England. He said to wear comfortable shoes because there are more than 1,500 steps to climb with some steps are shaped like triangles. Another castle he mentioned is the Kenilworth castle, also located in England.
He said Kenilworth is the same size as Warwick, but is in total ruin.
“There’s nothing like sitting inside of a ruin and looking up and visualizing the construction of that building,” Brown said. “And that’s the beauty of things: How did they build it?”
He added that there were no cranes or cement to help build Kenilworth castle.
“How do you build a curtain wall that’s 7 feet thick?” Brown asked.
Exploring different exhibits and experiencing different cultures are ways to learn history, not through a textbook, according to Brown. After his time in the military, he went back to teaching. He shared his travels with his students over the course of his career.
Brown taught fifth grade in Sullivan from 1969-1970, taught seventh and eighth grade from 1970-1975 and taught social studies at St. Clair High School from 1975-2001. He also earned a master’s degree in history and education from the University of Missouri Columbia in 1972 and participated in an archaeological dig on an Indian burial site located on the Bourbeuse River.
In addition to his travel stories, Brown’s teaching technique was to engage students in hands-on activities such as fill-in-the blank worksheets. He would lead class discussions where students would guess the answers to the worksheets by using clues he would give them.
“It’s amazing how much they know,” Brown said.
If he just stood in front of the class and lectured the whole time, Brown said students would not have paid attention and the information would go in one ear and out the other. With his teaching style, students were a part of the learning process.
“What amazes you is sometimes a kid you haven’t heard from (in) three weeks all of a sudden answers the question, everybody turns around and goes ‘Where did he come from?’ ” Brown said. “That’s the fun part of it.”
“I got my students interested in the topic as we worked along and by using analogies to let their minds really work.”
Brown said he let his students use their notes and textbooks on tests because his goal was not just to teach history, but to exercise students’ minds.
“We played games, we exercised the brain and we had a marvelous time,” he said.
Brown resides in Sullivan with his wife, Barbara, and together they have traveled to several countries. They have a son, Rober,t who works as an accountant and two granddaughters. Although he retired from St. Clair High School in 2001, he still educates students and the public on various history topics.
For the past three years, Brown has been a guest presenter for eighth grade American history classes at Crawford County R-2 School District. He has been a member of historical societies including William S. Harney Historical Society from 1980-1996, Harney Mansion Foundation from 2002-present, Crawford County Historical Society from 2005-present and was the treasurer from 2010-2018. He also was a guide at the Crawford County Historical Museum in Cuba from 2005-2018.
Last week, Brown gave a presentation about the Civil War at the Sullivan library. He discussed the men from Crawford and Franklin counties who rode with Gen. Sterling Price during his 1864 Missouri campaign. These men engaged the Union garrison at Fort Davidson in Pilot Knob, chased the Union garrison to Leasburg, which included the daylong battle in the Huzzah Valley.
Brown’s presentation also featured the six deserters from Mississippi following the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863 among other topics. His information was from his book“The Depots Are Burning,” which was published in 2014.
In addition to his writings, he was a contributor author on an article about Maj. Gen. William S. Harney for the “Missouri Biographical Dictionary.”