Published in the July, 2021 edition of Wesleyan Way Perspectives
Before I tell you about myself, I’d like to thank the faculty, staff and students who agreed to hire me; I am honored by your trust and humbled by the commitment I have seen throughout the College. I’d also like to extend my appreciation to Dr. Paula Dehn for her years of distinguished service and for the kindnesses she has extended to me over the past few months. Evidence of Paula’s long commitment to Kentucky Wesleyan is all around me; literally, stacked in boxes filled to overflowing and stuffed into overstuffed, but neatly organized cabinets. Contained therein are scores of successful grant applications resulting in millions of dollars awarded to Kentucky Wesleyan; hundreds of research reports, whitepapers and policies that improved the health and secured the College’s long-term stability; and of course, thousands of pages written for the benefit of national and programmatic accreditors. The size and scope of her work is immense and her legacy will live on in countless and meaningful ways.
I was born in a small town called King of Prussia just about 20 miles west of Philadelphia, Pa. Our house was within walking distance of Valley Forge, the place where Washington’s army spent the frigid winter of 1777-78. My earliest memories are of playing around the field cannons found throughout the park; I got my first bee sting from a yellow jacket hiding in one of those cannons. I’m the second of four children, two boys and two girls, all with names beginning with the letter “J.” (Julie, James, Jackie and John). My father (Jay) was a banking executive; my mother (Janie), an amazing artist and creative mind, kept the home and ran a gauntlet of daily in- and out-of-home errands, athletic-practices, doctor’s appointments and school activities while managing the family finances and keeping us all well fed. Most of my childhood memories involve our family station wagon, the kind with faux wood paneling and rear-facing back seats. We spent a lot of time in that car on family road trips to the Jersey Shore or to see grandparents and cousins in Michigan. My sisters got the middle seats; John and I were always forced to sit in the ‘way back.’
We moved closer to the city when I was about 7 and lived in Ardmore, which is part of a string of towns running northwest along Philadelphia’s “Main Line.” Merion Golf Club is a good point of reference—we lived across the street—but so is Villanova University and Haverford College. I would sneak into Haverford’s gym to play basketball; we had our high school graduation in Villanova’s arena. Ardmore was a great place to grow up. Everything seemed like it was within a bike ride: baseball card shops, video game arcades, public pools and a half dozen parks. My friends and I would play basketball after school, and on the weekends we’d either play more basketball or take the train into the downtown.
I spent my summers working as a caddy but had a few unsuccessful stints in shoe repair and tree surgery. I didn’t last long as a cobbler because I had (and have) a hard time seeing the difference between dark red and light brown (among other colors). I’d polish brown shoes with cordovan and cordovan shoes with brown. I’m told cordovan is a deep red; I wouldn’t know. When it came to repairing scuffs on multi-colored women’s shoes, I was worse than useless. My adventures in tree surgery were also short lived. Sycamores turn to a fine pulpy powder in the wood chipper, and it seemed like every tree in Philadelphia was a sycamore.
I was always happiest when reading, and I read a lot. Science fiction was one of my favorite genres, but I read history more than anything else. I’m sure my early interests had something to do with the nearness of battlefields and historic buildings. Philadelphia is filled with historic sites, but I owe a greater debt to middle and high school history teachers. They inspired reading with exceptional storytelling and could hold our attention with just a chalkboard and the occasional 16 mm film. Their focus was never on memorization but on interpretation and the real “work” of history; reading, research and writing—and constant revision. They taught us to see history as a framework, and we used that framework to ask interesting questions, gather and sift through evidence, understand and appreciate context, and apply everything we learned.
I came to see history as the gateway to other disciplines, so by the time I got to high school I was reading broadly in philosophy, theology, poetry, economics and most eras of world and American history. Of course, this led to a lot of indecision when it came time to find a college and settle into a major. I was self directed but had a lot of directions. In graduate school, I studied history broadly—taking courses in everything from ancient philosophy to modern British history—but eventually found a focus in the history of ideas and the history of Christianity. After completing my M.A., I moved on to the University of Kentucky’s Ph.D. history of education program under the direction of Professor John Thelin.
’Coach’ Thelin is a remarkable scholar and renowned expert in all things history and everything higher education. He’s frequently published in major periodicals and has an enviable list of monographs. John models the type of public-facing scholarship all historians should aspire to; accessible and interesting but rigorous and eminently useful. His mentorship is still paying dividends. Unsurprisingly, many of John’s former students have gone on to become professors, deans and presidents at colleges and universities throughout the country.
I was wrapping up my dissertation when I met the beautiful and remarkable Miss Carrie Anne Cornacchio. Carrie’s story is a lot more interesting than my own. She’s the child of international school teachers and was born in Athens, Greece. Carrie spent her childhood there and in Jakarta before her family relocated to the more exotic town of Georgetown, Ky. She was a stand-out athlete at Scott County High School and ran for Murray State’s cross country and track teams. When we met, Carrie was coaching at Scott County and finishing a master’s in teaching. I asked her to marry me just after I defended my dissertation and just before I accepted a history professorship at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Kalamazoo is about the size of Owensboro and with a similar topography; rolling hills and large open expanses, good soil for growing fruit. We spent just over a decade in Kalamazoo, long enough to make many life-long friends and lasting memories. I’ll always be indebted to my colleagues who supported me as I made as my way up through tenure and promotion. In 2015, I accepted the position as associate dean in Western’s College of Arts and Sciences and remained in that role for almost six years, overseeing everything from curriculum to advising, faculty development to research, and all things related to student success. My time at Western was capped off by a successful nomination to the American Council of Education (ACE) Fellows program.
I’ve known of and admired Kentucky Wesleyan College for years; its roots are buried deep in the history of Kentucky and its alumni are well placed and meaningfully connected. Faith has played a significant role in my life, and I was also drawn in by The Wesleyan Way; love and support and integrity and honor are values we should all share and aspire to. Moreover, there is a great sense of purpose on and around campus. So much of this is due to the outstanding work of past presidents, faculty and staff. The job of building on these legacies falls heavy on its current institutional custodians, and I have been deeply impressed by President Mitzel’s vision and leadership but also by the commitment of the entire campus. There are many reasons to be proud of Kentucky Wesleyan’s past and so many wonderful things to come.
A lot has changed since we left Kentucky for Kalamazoo. Carrie now owns and operates a chain of successful coffee shops (six locations and counting) and, in October of 2016, we added James Jr. to our small family. JP loves Kentucky almost as much as he loves monster trucks and golf with dad. Somewhere along the way, I picked up violin, and I’m currently working my way (slowly) through the Suzuki books. Playing and practicing violin, writing and researching, and some truly mediocre golf, gives me endless hours of enjoyment or at least solitude.
We’re still acclimating to our new home, still learning the best routes to schools and shopping, but feel blessed to be here. We were told that Owensboro was a wonderful place to raise a family and everything we’ve experienced so far agrees with that. Smothers Park is JP’s new favorite place in the world. We’ve been warmly welcomed by everyone we’ve met, and we couldn’t be happier to be part of the Kentucky Wesleyan family.
There’s a lot to look forward to this year. The return to in-person classes and activities will be a welcomed change. I plan on taking it all in so expect to see me everywhere around campus. I’ll also be a frequent contributor to Wesleyan Way Perspectives and, in a few weeks, I’ll kick off my own podcast series where I’ll be speaking to scholars and thought leaders in higher education. I hope you’ll find what I write interesting, and I hope you’ll consider ‘tuning in’ to the podcast from time to time. I also hope you’ll use the return to pre-pandemic normalcy as an excuse to return to campus and, when you do, I hope you’ll stop in and say hello.
With best wishes for a safe and happy summer,
James P. Cousins, PhD
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs
Kentucky Wesleyan College