March 6, 2019

Phinizy Spalding: History's Homie

Pub Notes

Phinizy Spalding 1930-1994

Billups Phinizy Spalding died 25 years ago this month. That just seems incredible on a number of levels. For one, it is scary, as usual, to be reminded how time is flying. Also, Phinizy died at the height of his considerable powers, at age 63, claimed by cancer. Somehow, 63 seems especially young for a historian, who should at that age have the perspective and experience for mature reflection on his years of research and teaching. Because he died without aging any more, Phinizy remains vibrant in the minds of those who knew him—especially his friends, most especially his family.

I guess Phinizy had faults. His color perception may have been a little weird, considering some of the combinations he might make in his wearing apparel—stripes, checks, greens, reds, oranges. He was colorful, but he carried it off with his genteel, self-deprecating aplomb.

Phinizy, you see, was an aristocrat—the scion and namesake of three prominent Georgia families. He was well born and well off, so he didn’t need to prove himself, and he didn’t need to pretend. He was free to follow his interests, and against the odds, he had the capacity to work tirelessly to channel his passions into productivity. He also had the rare ability to communicate his own concerns to others and enlist them in his causes. His own love of his pursuits was so infectious that his friends became his recruits, and his recruits became his friends.

And of course, Phinizy was charming, not to mention handsome and witty and intelligent. You wanted to be with him; you enjoyed doing what he was doing, glad to be a part of the tasks he had undertaken.

He undertook a lot of tasks.

He taught colonial Georgia history at UGA and awakened many a student to the heritage of our state and the importance of careful study. He was a relentless scholar who became the foremost authority on James Edward Oglethorpe, our founder, and he published continuously—a dozen books, scores of journal articles and frequent presentations of scholarly papers. He excelled in his chosen profession to the extent that his academic accomplishments brought him honor and distinction.

But that was just his day job. For Phinizy, history was not the dead past; it lives on in real-life consequences.

Our intown neighborhoods back then were run-down warrens of blighted old houses rented out cheap to students and dropouts who were impervious to mold and bad plumbing. But Phinizy taught us to see gems worth preserving and restoring, at a time most citizens thought the ranch house was the architectural apex.

Phinizy was a lot like Gen. Oglethorpe. He didn’t just talk about history and how cool it is—he grabbed hold of history and shored up its floor joists and put a new roof on it and held onto it until he found somebody who wanted to take it over and live in it. He used his resources, personal and financial, to save not just a house but a neighborhood. He showed us what was there and what to do with it. Now, of course, those squalid sectors are some of the most desired areas in town, and much of the charm ascribed to our city emanates from those environs and others like them, saved by Phinizy’s kind of people.

Phinizy is gone these 25 years, but it is still his town and would of course be even more so, had he lived. One can only imagine what he would have said and done about some of the high-rise incursions and ersatz infills of recent years. “Dukes up,” was his battle cry, and he meant it. He knew how to marshal the resistance and lead his troops to stop the invaders, like Oglethorpe at Bloody Marsh.

Phinizy loved to gather with friends for an evening of snacks and drinks at the Globe, and he kept up that warm tradition even as his illness progressed, right up until the end. Now, Margie invites their old friends to raise a glass to Phinizy at the Globe, 6:30–8:30 p.m. this Friday, Mar. 8. Dukes up!