This New York Yankee’s 50 years in the South? “The time of my life”

A note from Chuck Offenburger: Our friend Paul Kurtz, whom we first came to know when we were undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University, had a long and distinguished career as a professor and administrator at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens, Ga. He retired a year ago and, on Jan. 26, was invited to give the 2015 Founder’s Day address at “UGA,” as Georgians call their university. We enjoyed his text, which is really one person’s story of moving far away from home for college – and then surprising himself by not only staying in that different region of the country, but also coming to love it. Kurtz titled his speech: “New York Yankee in Abraham Baldwin’s Court: (Almost) 50 Years Behind ‘Enemy’ Lines.” 

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My lengthy journey to this podium began around the kitchen table in my childhood home in semi-rural New York in the spring of 1964, over 50 years ago. The topic of that evening’s discussion with my mother was where I would attend college.

In addition to several New York area schools, one Southern school had invited me to enroll, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Ever the dutiful son, I sought her advice and she suggested that I head South. She explained that this would provide an adventure on which I would experience places and things I had never seen and be around people unlike any of those I knew growing up. I remember her stressing that this would be a college life different from that of any of my high school friends – one which I could not duplicate in the other schools to which I had been accepted.

So, having never been farther south than Washington, D.C., I left on what turned out to be a 24-hour bus ride by myself to attend college 900 miles away from home on a campus I had never seen.

Looking back at this in 2015, it is mystifying to me that I insisted on riding that bus instead of accepting the plane ticket offered to me by my parents. All I can offer in my defense is that “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Speaking of my parents, what indeed were they thinking in allowing me to head out from the Port Authority Bus Terminal on my own that sweltering September morning? I never had the courage to ask.

During her life, my late mother was the source of much excellent advice. But her suggestion to go South for college clearly was the best she ever provided. It absolutely was life-changing. I am fairly confident, though, that as the ensuing chapters of my life played out, from time to time she must have regretted that conversation back in 1964.

You see, the assumption underlying her guidance was that, after finishing college and having grown and learned and perhaps even changed, I would return “home” to New York. And, of course, that never happened. While in college, I fell in love with learning, and then I fell in love with a woman, which was followed by law school, which led to a judicial clerkship and then to academia as a life here at the University of Georgia. And virtually all of that has happened far below the Mason-Dixon Line.

So I stand before you today, having spent most of my life in Athens, Georgia, and virtually all of my post-high school life in the South. I have decided that the time has come for an accounting of the results of that adventure which began more than half a century ago.

I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to use this occasion to report what I have learned and how things have gone. It is somehow fitting that I give this particular report on the day when we honor Abraham Baldwin, the Connecticut Yankee who founded our university. It would be hard for me to convey how much I wish my mother were here today to hear me this afternoon, but I am fairly confident that before her death seven years ago she had a fairly complete understanding of what her oldest child had experienced during his time away from “home.”

Before I give my report, let’s address some clarifications and explanations. First, despite the rumors you may have heard and my less-than-youthful appearance, I was not invited to give this lecture by Abraham Baldwin himself. While he was my friend, he was not a big fan of my sense of humor. While on the subject of Baldwin, I just want to note that though he did hire me, I was not actually a faculty member when the charter was issued in 1785 or in 1801 when classes began. Second, the “New York Yankee” in the title of my talk most emphatically does not refer to any baseball team; while I did root for the pinstriped team avidly in my youth, my allegiance to them has vanished along with my youth. The phrase now simply indicates the city of my birth. Third, I don’t really believe I am behind enemy lines. While neither I nor anybody who knows me would consider me to have become a Southerner, I believe that over the years Dixie and I have reached an understanding.

I can assure you that when I arrived on this gorgeous campus in the summer of 1975 (as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in a slightly different context, “hardly a man is now alive”) I had no thought that one day I would deliver this kind of address on this kind of occasion to such a distinguished audience. I was just hoping to find a place where I would enjoy my work, raise a family and live a good life, whether it was a short-term or long-term assignment. Needless to say, I can report enthusiastically and honestly that all three of those goals have been achieved.

As in any relationship, not everything is perfect between the South and me. Of course, there are things that I very much admire, there are things I have come to accept over time, there are things which remain odd and/or funny to me, and there are things I am not terribly fond of.

Let’s begin with the things I like. I suppose the thing I like most about the South is its warmth. I’m not referring to the climate, though it’s not bad at all to live in a part of the country in which at least eight or nine months in any year contain what I would describe as convertible weather. It is a place where snow removal is usually accomplished before lunchtime by the sun, rather than by shoveling. It’s what I have often called the God Plan of Snow Removal — He brought it and He will get rid of it in his own way. It is a place where a picnic on the day after Thanksgiving is often possible.

But obviously the far more important kind of warmth – which I admire most about the South – is reflected in its people. By and large, Southerners simply are nice. They care about their families, they care about their neighbors, they care about their country, they care about their cities and towns and, most relevant on Founder’s Day, they care about their state universities. While I do not want to be understood to say Yankees don’t care about these things, in my experience Southerners are brought up to be welcoming in ways very different from many of those in other parts of the country.

Family is especially important to Southerners. I’ve noticed over the years that it normally doesn’t take a Southerner more than a few minutes in a conversation with a new acquaintance for a question to be posed about one’s family. That, of course, leads to information about his or her family, which often leads to the happy discovery of a pre-existing link between the two individuals. A favorite Southern phrase, which reflects both on family and warmth, I came across several years ago when I heard one Southerner inquire of another, “where do your people bury?”  Additionally, I would wager there are more family reunions held in one of the summer months in Georgia than in all of New England and the Middle Atlantic states in an entire year.

In addition to warmth, most Southerners are extremely respectful to others, at least most of the time; everything stops for a funeral procession whether it is an extremely important public official, a neighbor down the street or somebody you never met. Doors are held open for total strangers, hellos are exchanged on the street in passing and it’s always quite acceptable to inquire “how’s your Mom and dem?”

Manners are taught, learned and utilized. Personally, I used to think that standing when an elder entered a room was a bit much, but the more senior I get the more fond I become of the practice.

Another Southern tic that I initially understood as being mannerly and sweet was the addition of “bless his/her heart” at either the end or beginning of a sentence. Of course, over time it became very clear that this was merely a restrained, polite-sounding means of saying “the crazy fool” or something similar. Needless to say, my Yankee friends have much more explicit ways of expressing that opinion, not finding it necessary to couch that thought in a sweetly murmured euphemism.

Closely related to the respect and kindness shown by Southerners is their humility. Unlike many people I know from other parts of the country, a Southerner rarely enters a room assuming that he or she is the smartest one there and that everybody is desperate to hear the opinion of the newcomer on all matters large and small.

And my list of favorite Southern things would not be complete if I failed to mention the cuisine. Grits, pecan pies, homemade ice cream, apple fritters, cornbread, biscuits, Krispy Kreme donuts, Moon Pies, GooGoo Clusters, anything fried (especially chicken and okra), and anything barbequed (except goat) and when I say barbequed, I mean the real kind, not the stuff done on a grill for a half an hour.

I cannot leave my list of favorite Southern things without mentioning country music. I’m not talking about those songs like “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” or “Just How Married Are You, Darling” or “You Done Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat.” Those cute titles are fun to make fun of.

But I refer to classics like Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away,” the Statler Brothers’ “Class of ’57,” Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” “Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the many, many versions of “Georgia on My Mind,” most notably those by Willie Nelson and Ray Charles, and the best country music song ever written, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones.

This music tells real stories about real people, their jobs, their hopes and dreams and often about love, both lost and found.

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In June of 2014, Paul Kurtz visited Iowa while cheering on his alma mater Vanderbilt University’s baseball team, which won the College World Series in Omaha for the national championship. We thought the Yankee from Georgia needed to have his photo taken in a genuine Iowa cornfield.

Over my years in the South, some things which I initially found to be very strange or even peculiar I have come to accept. For example, as you all undoubtedly are aware, it is terribly important in the South when ordering iced tea to make clear if sweet tea is not your cup of tea. I learned that lesson very early in our time in Athens when I ordered iced tea at the Holiday Inn and automatically put in two packages of sweetener. Let me assure you, sweetening sweet tea hurts badly.

Another item in this category is the fact that children are taught to address their parents’ friends as Mr. Paul and Ms. Carol, rather than simply Paul and Carol. This habit is retained by the children well into adulthood. When I first was addressed in that manner, I was immediately taken back to “Romper Room” on 1950s television. For those of you too young to understand, television was where entertainment was found before the days of Facebook, streaming videos, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and such. And no, it wasn’t hi-def and it wasn’t even in color. Well, actually, it was in two colors – black and white.

There are still some things which I find very strange, a mere 50 years after first arriving in the South. Things like boiled peanuts, pimento cheese, a bag of Planter’s peanuts put into an RC Cola, vegetables cooked for a week, reference to all kinds of soda no matter what they say on the label, as “Coke,” and Krystalburgers. When I first showed up at a Krystal, each of the “burgers” cost a dime or maybe 12 cents. The guy ahead of me on line ordered a dozen – when I called home that Sunday, I related the experience to my parents and told them I was sure I had moved to another country. These things I still don’t understand or get.

I also still find it hard to understand the fact that it goes unnoticed or at least unmentioned that the famous UGA fight song, “Glory Glory to Old Georgia,” is sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was a camp song of the Union army during what is interestingly called the “War of Northern Aggression” or the “War for Southern Independence,” or, for true old-timers, simply “The Woe Ah.” It’s as if ’Dawg fans think by not talking about that, or acknowledging that fact, then it won’t be true.

Likewise, I remain mystified that college football games require young women to dress like they’re going to the prom (or a bar) and young men to carry a flask, while wearing a jacket, a tie, shorts and sometimes sandals. I showed up for my first college football game as a college freshman in jeans and a sweatshirt and haven’t gotten over the embarrassment yet.

Finally, there is a short list of things of which I am not terribly fond. These things include:

–Greek weekends which begin on Wednesday. As a longtime homeowner who lives within shouting distance (or, more accurately, amplification distance) of our fraternity row, Milledge Avenue, I have been victim of noise pollution in the same decibel range as occurs in those neighborhoods under flight paths to major metropolitan airports.

–The Southern obsession with guns. Full page ads in the newspaper for various types of firearms, the giving away of a gun as a lottery prize, and legislators considering whether guns would be appropriate on campuses, in churches, in bars!

–Augusts in the South. People I grew up with think humidity of 70 or 80 percent is absolutely unbearable. Down here, as we all can attest, that is simply rather a pleasant day in May.

–The politics of this region. Each Thanksgiving I reflect how grateful I am for living in a very blue city in a very red state.

The mention of our very blue city reminds me that I forgot the two most important things I have come to admire about the South – our beautiful, accomplished university and the wonderful town in which it is the main attraction.

The University of Georgia is merely the best part of the best town in Georgia. Whether one counts from the granting of the Charter in 1785, or from 1801 when classes began about 100 yards from where I am standing, our university has been the center of higher education in this state for well over two centuries.

The last 40 of those years have seen a gigantic step forward on this campus. In 1975, the year of my arrival, there were 13 schools and colleges. Since then, four new schools and colleges, plus the medical partnership with Georgia Regents University have been established. The university welcomed 2,499 freshmen in 1975 and 5,258 last fall. In 1975, 85 percent of those who applied for admission were accepted, last fall barely half of applicants gained admission. In 1975, the average SAT score was 994, in 2013 it was 1,249. Total enrollment has gone from about 10,400 to over 34,500. Enrollment in graduate programs has jumped from about 4,700 to 8,200. Doctoral degrees conferred went from 238 to 440. In 1980, the university was named as one of only 30 schools in the country to be designated as a Sea Grant institution to accompany its status as the original land grant institution, the University of North Carolina to the contrary, notwithstanding.

In all the years before 1975, no UGA graduates had clerked for the United States Supreme Court; since then 10 of our law school graduates have done so. In the last 20 years, the university has produced eight Rhodes Scholars, five Marshall Scholars, 12 Truman Scholars, 46 Goldwater Scholars and, in the last four years, 49 of our students have been offered Fulbright grants. In fact, in its history UGA students have won 23 Rhodes Scholarships, only one fewer than Berkeley and two fewer than Michigan and more than UCLA, Pennsylvania, Emory, Davidson, New York University, Notre Dame, not to mention almost twice as many as that school in Gainesville, Florida, and almost five times as many as the North Avenue trade school in Atlanta (some know that school as our arch-rival Georgia Tech).

All this has happened at a university which the Peace Corps has ranked 17th in the country among universities and colleges producing volunteers, one which Kiplinger’s Magazine recently ranked as the 10th best value in public higher education in the country and U.S. News ranks as the 20th best public university in the country. I am exceedingly proud of being a very small part of the maturing of this wonderful institution of higher learning.

With its antebellum homes, rich history, active cultural life and myriad of non-profit organizations dedicated to dealing with issues ranging from poverty to sexual assault to illiteracy to family violence, Athens is the place to which all Georgians gravitate, especially those who have attended school here.

We don’t have one arts center, but two; we have the State Botanical Garden; The Tree that Owns Itself; the State Art Museum; a public radio station; at least two farmers markets; a vibrant downtown; wonderful restaurants; the Georgia public school superintendent of the year; a world-famous music scene; community theater and more. No place in Georgia is more exciting than Athens on one of those football Saturdays in the fall. No place anywhere is better to contemplate important ideas than Athens on a quiet fall or winter afternoon at Sandy Creek or the North Campus on a Sunday.

On those occasions when I randomly meet former students who are in town for various reasons very soon in the conversation, after the pleasantries have been dispensed with, they get a certain look on their face. Their eyes narrow and it is very clear that they are thinking. And I believe I know exactly what they are thinking: “You lucky son of a gun; I only get to Athens every once in a while – to see a game, to appear in court, to interview students, to attend a conference – but you get to live here the whole year and can enjoy this town and this campus every single day.”

Athens, Georgia, the perfect college town. I’ve seen Chapel Hill, I’ve seen Ann Arbor. They’re nice, but they’re not Athens. Very few of the people I grew up with even understand the nature of a college town and the advantages it offers, bless their hearts.

In summary, my half-century foray below the Mason-Dixon Line has been nothing more (and nothing less) than the time of my life.

Paul Kurtz grew up outside New York City in the small town of Spring Valley, N.Y. He graduated in 1968 from Vanderbilt University, where he and Chuck Offenburger became friends working on the student newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler. Kurtz graduated from the Vanderbilt Law School in 1972. He served as a clerk for the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Then he earned a master’s of law at Harvard University in 1974, and later taught at Boston College law school. After joining the faculty at the University of Georgia, he taught criminal law and family law. He became associate dean for academic and student affairs in the law school in 1991, was named to a chaired professorship in 1992 and retired in 2013. He and his wife Carol, a retired elementary school teacher, have a grown son Benji, and continue to live in Athens, Ga. You can write him by email at

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Paul and Carol Kurtz are shown here when they were in Birmingham, Ala., in January of 2014 to cheer on Paul’s alma mater Vanderbilt in a football bowl game.  Carol is a graduate of the former Peabody College, which was located across the street from Vanderbilt and has since merged with VU.

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