Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards 2011
Dr. Light Cummins
BEd History '68
MA History '72
State Historian of Texas
Professor, Austin College
Remarks by Dr. Ann Marie Ellis
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Dr. Light Townsend Cummins, who holds the Guy M. Bryan Chair of History at Austin College, is a renowned teacher and scholar of Texas history. In 2009, Texas Gov. Rick Perry named him the State Historian of Texas.
Light’s interest in Texas history began in childhood with the knowledge that he was descended from two members of Stephen F. Austin’s colony—Asa Townsend and James Cummins. During his school days in San Antonio, he became a Junior Historian in the organization started by the Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb. When Light was in high school, he once spent an evening talking about Texas history with Webb.
Growing up, Light thought Texas State was a magical place. One of his earliest childhood memories is driving with his parents between San Antonio and Austin and seeing Old Main in the distance from the highway. He thought it was a fairyland castle. On the day he enrolled at Texas State, he entered the registrar’s office in Old Main and thought, “I’ve finally made it to the castle.”
As a Texas State student, he spent a semester living in a garage apartment at the home of the history professor Emmie Craddock. In those years, Dr. Craddock had a cat that liked to sun itself on the hood of her 1950s Dodge. The old car wasn’t driven anymore, It just sat in the driveway as the resting place for the cat. It was Light’s job to wash the car and keep it clean for the cat.
Light learned that Dr. Craddock was a virtuoso pianist who had had her own radio show on the Armed Forces Radio network during WWII. Light and Dr. Craddock would listen to recordings of her show while sitting in her living room, a room with a beautiful grand piano which she played for Light. He says that Dr. Emmie Craddock remains a tremendous inspiration for him.
Light took his first undergraduate history course from Dr. Everett Swinney who, besides being a masterful teacher, would invite students to his home for barbecues and other gatherings. Light says he has modeled much of what he has done as a professor on Dr. Swinney’s example.
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Light was commissioned an Air Force officer. As his term of service ended, he visited Dr. Swinney to seek advice on what he should do next. Dr. Swinney greeted Light effusively, saying he thought he’d do well to obtain a master’s degree in history. On the spot, Dr. Swinney called the graduate dean’s office on the spot and recommended that Light be admitted to the graduate program, which he was.
As a graduate student, Light also worked with history professor William C. Pool, who took his students to meetings of the Texas State Historical Society where they could meet historians. Because of the History Department’s outstanding reputation for training historians, a number of prominent Texas historians have trained at Texas State, and Light says they today form a cohesive group in the state’s historical community.
After obtaining his M.A. with Dr. Swinney serving as his thesis director, Light enrolled in the PhD program at Tulane. A highlight of his studies was being a Fulbright Scholar to Spain where he spent two years researching Spain’s participation in the American Revolution. The book that resulted from this research would earn him the Spain in America Prize, an award presented to him by King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
Light and his wife Victoria met in their first PhD class at Tulane. Victoria’s field is Latin American history. Both of them have been professors at Austin College since 1978. They have two grown daughters, Katherine and Leslie.
To date, Light has published eleven books. His recent biography of Emily Austin Bryan Perry, the sister of Stephen F. Austin, received the prestigious 2010 Liz Carpenter Award from the Texas State Historical Association, given to the best book of the year about Texas women.
Light says he’s having the time of his life as State Historian. He has driven some 40,000 miles across Texas, visiting more than 190 of Texas’ 254 counties in his effort to advance public awareness of Texas history. He speaks to groups ranging from cattle ranchers to Alamo visitors and before numerous historical societies. Last year, at a Houston gathering celebrating San Jacinto Day, he gave an 18-minute talk—the precise length of the Battle of San Jacinto. The audience was surprised by the short length of the battle—and of his speech.
He has visited scores of the more than 4,000 museums and historical associations in Texas. Light writes a syndicated newspaper column and also an informative blog about Texas History. One of his blog entries recounts an evening he spent recently with the English singer Phil Collins, whose passionate interest in the Alamo has led him to assemble the world’s largest collection of Alamo artifacts. Light discovered that he and the singer, who grew up in London, had each owned coonskin caps as children, during the Davy Crockett craze of the 1950s.
Light is a lifetime fellow of the Texas Historical Association, a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, and a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas. He is proudest, however, of the students he has taught at Austin College over the years. His teaching was recognized in 2006 when he was named a Minnie Stevens Piper Professor.
Light, your leadership in advancing historical causes in the Lone Star State is uniquely impressive. Your scholarship has increased our understanding of our Texas heritage, and through your teaching and your office as State Historian, you are transmitting that heritage to new generations of Texans. On behalf of the College of Liberal Arts, I am pleased to present you with the College’s highest honor, the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.