Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Michael Billig's Remarks on the Occasion of Jim Taggart's Retirement

Although my role here is to praise and thank Jim Taggart in a light-hearted way, that may not be so easy for me to accomplish. To be honest, Jim’s retirement is difficult for me to accept, and not only because it makes me the senior most member — the oldest fart, if you will — of the Anthropology Department. How is that even possible? No, it is because Jim has been so important a figure in the life of our department and in my life personally that up to now I have been in deep denial rather than facing up to the reality of his retirement. F&M, especially Gerhart House, without Jim is unimaginable. Jim and I have been colleagues for twenty-six years, since my arrival in 1986. He had already been at the college for fifteen years, having arrived in 1971 as a newly minted PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. Our offices have been across the hall from one another’s up until this year when I was sent into exile to work in the salt mines.

Jim is modest to the point of self-deprecating. He frequently quips about his advanced age, his slow-wittedness, his poor memory, and all his other supposed shortcomings. It is tempting to be lulled by that stance and take it seriously. Big, big mistake. His age is what it is, but clearly he is in amazing physical shape and hearty health. He swims several times a week, and he walks, and walks, and walks. It is an on-going joke in my department that Jim never accepts rides. We could be at a restaurant miles away from his house late at night, but Jim will insist that he prefers to walk home. Through the years, one way Jim has enforced this walking regimen on himself has been to own cars that are twenty-five years old, are bigger than the Queen Mary, and get four miles to the gallon.

As to his slow-wittedness—now that’s a joke. Six books, three edited volumes, dozens of articles, visiting professor at Berkeley and the Sorbonne, many awards and grants, Lindback Award, Dewey Award, endowed chair for the last twenty-one years. Every member of my department has had the experience of being at a conference and having someone approach us saying something like: “Oh, you’re at Franklin & Marshall. Isn’t that where James Taggart teaches? I really admire his work.” This self-deprecating guy is one of our most eminent scholars. (At this point, I know that Jim is getting uncomfortable. When I asked him the other day whether there were anything particular he wanted in this speech, he said, “Don’t go on and on about my accomplishments. Make a joke out of everything”).

But Jim is not only intellectually brilliant; he is also wise. He is the go-to guy in my department for advice, sound reason, and, frankly, nurturing. Although he hates being Chair, he is really very good at it. In departmental deliberations, he typically speaks last and most quietly, but most often his arguments win the day.

One of the secrets of Jim’s success is his intense focus. As a scholar he has carved out a clear niche and has developed his subfield in many permutations and several ethnographic contexts. His work is about oral narratives and their relationship to social and cultural forms. He is an ethnographer and a listener par excellence. But his focus goes beyond his research. One famous example: After years of effort, Jim has absolutely perfected his yellow cake with chocolate icing. Whenever we have any sort of potluck get-together, everyone knows that Jim will bring his cake, and everyone anticipates it eagerly. Among the unimaginable aspects of Jim’s retirement are Anthropology events without the Taggart cake.

Jim is a great teacher. He often refers to our way of teaching as “labor-intensive,” and he believes that we all must give our greatest possible efforts to enhance our students’ learning experiences. He assigns more writing than he needs to, and certainly provides far more feedback to students than he needs to. The door to his office is always open to students, and he takes on a disproportionate share of advisees and Independent Studies. He believes that one of the most important tools to foster good learning and attentiveness is chocolate, and students in his classes often emerge quite stuffed. He is extremely flexible about scheduling and course selection. He’ll teach his courses on two days a week, or three or four days a week, early morning, late afternoon—whatever suits his colleagues. If we need another section of Intro, or another culture area course, or a first-year seminar, Jim will always step up. Last semester—his last one teaching at F&M—Jim taught our extremely labor-intensive capstone Methods course so that our two new tenure-track faculty members wouldn’t have to. (And while I am on the subject of Jim’s willingness to step-up when needed, I remind you that within the last few years Jim stepped up to be President of this very AAUP chapter).

Although Jim is beloved by all of his students, he has been an especially important figure for those of Hispanic descent and from Spanish-speaking countries. Jim has, of course, conducted research in Mexico, Spain, and the US Southwest, and he teaches courses on the Indians of Mexico, People of Spain, and Hispanic Cultures in the US. His Spanish is beyond fluent as is his Nahuatl (no kidding). But this is not just his intellectual interest. Because of Jim’s Anglo last name, some people don’t realize that he is a Hispanic. His mother was Mexican (and, by the way, a ballerina and movie actress). Our Hispanic students all relate to him as a fellow-Hispanic who is a generous advisor, mentor, encourager, cultural guide, and patron. Jim has many deep-seated character traits that were forged in his southern California, Mexican upbringing. He has a strong Latinate sense of honor. He believes that loyalty to friends, family, and colleagues is among the very highest of virtues, and he will fight the good fight to protect the interests of those to whom he is loyal. I myself regard this attribute with awe and gratitude, because I have benefitted from it in important ways. I can tell you that soft-spoken, self-effacing Jim Taggart can fight like hell when he is aggrieved on behalf of one of his friends.

Jim’s formal retirement from F&M means that he intends to double his scholarly productivity. He writes and researches every day, is about to become a visiting professor at Mexico’s National School of Anthropology and History, and has a full slate of commitments for articles and lectures. He has a large agenda of ethnographic projects he intends to take on, and I would bet that there are several more books in his future. His wife and soul-mate, Carole Counihan—as eminent an anthropologist as is Jim—is currently teaching at Boston University, soon to retire from Millersville. For now, they will be moving about quite a bit, splitting time between Boston, Mexico, their house on Cape Cod, their house in 8,000 foot high Antonito, Colorado, Santa Rosa, California (where daughter Maricella, son Ben, and soon-to-be four grandchildren live), and (here is the good news) Lancaster, where son Willie lives and where they intend still to call home. I hope he plans Lancaster stays for early February so we can continue our yearly Super Bowl tradition, especially now that my team—the Jets—has a Chicano quarterback from USC, Jim’s alma mater, for whom Jim roots (to the dismay of his Patriots-fan wife).

Jim has been my mentor for twenty-six years, and I cannot thank him enough for his wisdom, support, and friendship. He will be my dear friend until the end of our days.

  • Profile: Dr. James M. Taggart