Kevin Derby ’96
Special to the Trinity Tripod
During the coronavirus pandemic, a quarter-century after I graduated, I unexpectedly continued my Trinity education thanks to a professor who left the college the year I was born and died in 2006.
Earlier this year, working on a paper trying to apply leadership theories to the American Revolution, I stumbled upon Rev. Samuel Peters, an Anglican clergyman, historian, satirist, and one of the leading Loyalists from Connecticut. Looking to portray Peters as a transactional leader, I ordered two editions of Peters’ writings off Amazon. To my surprise, I discovered the editor of the books was part of the Trinity community: Prof. Kenneth Walter Cameron.
Originally from Ohio and West Virginia, Prof. Cameron graduated from Yale with his Ph. D. in 1940, five years after being ordained as an Episcopalian priest. He interviewed for a position in the English Department in 1938 since President Remsen Brinckerhoff Ogilby, in Cameron’s memorable phrase “the last of our priest-presidents,” wanted help with chapel services. Prof. Cameron accepted an offer to teach in North Carolina though President Ogilby claimed Trinity had him in “cold storage.” President Ogilby was correct. In 1946, three years after President Ogilby’s heroic death, Prof. Cameron came to work on Gallows Hill. He would stay at Trinity until 1974.
I don’t recall hearing anything about Prof. Cameron during my time at Trinity in the 1990s. I never came across his books until this year. Printed by Transcendental Press, which Prof. Cameron managed, the books collecting Peters’ public writings and correspondence guided me through the paper despite more than a few challenges.
While I might have turned to many published collections of primary sources over the years, none of them prepared me for the writings of Samuel Peters. As an editor, Prof. Cameron was a firm believer in throwing in as much as possible even if the reader found it a jarring experience. Relying on different fonts and text sizes, Prof. Cameron jammed as much of Peters’ writings as he could between the covers, reminding me of my high school days when I was a bag boy at my local Winn Dixie. The bottoms of the paper bags contained instructions about how much weight you could cram into them. Prof. Cameron cheerfully ignored any such warnings when it came to assembling these books. Despite having good vision, I had to reach for the magnifying glass to read the small text more than a few times. Other times, I had to hold the book at a 90-degree angle since Prof. Cameron decided to change the text’s layout. Some of the pages were reproduced from eighteenth-century books, newspapers, and pamphlets, while others came off a typewriter from the 1960s.
Even worse, Prof. Cameron produced books at an astonishing rate. While some of them, I could cheerfully ignore–namely works focused on Emerson and Thoreau–I had to tackle others.
Several of these books touched on Peters as Prof. Cameron edited even more of his correspondence in between letterbooks of Anglican ministers; the records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel focused on colonial Connecticut; a seemingly endless procession of the writings of Bishop Samuel Seabury; sketches of clergymen who attended diocesan conventions in the 1780s and 1790s; minutiae touching on efforts to establish a bishop in Vermont; and a host of other material. Living in North Florida, it was no surprise that Prof. Cameron’s books were absent from most university libraries. With Peters shaping up to be an essential part of my dissertation, I kept ordering Prof. Cameron’s books off Amazon since most of them were reasonably priced. It’s not as if the Letter-Book of the Rev. Henry Caner, S.P.G Missionary in Colonial Connecticut and Massachusetts Until the Revolution: a Review of his Correspondence from 1728 through 1778 will appear on the bestsellers list anytime soon. Most of the used bookstores had to be happy to move these massive dust-covered tomes and clear up space.
One of the booksellers threw in Prof. Cameron’s Strictly Personal: A Teacher’s Reminiscences at a reasonable price, which, to be candid, ranks as one of the strangest books I have ever read. I’m not even sure it is a book thought it might border on being one. While there are two covers and pages between them, Strictly Personal is a random bunch of various documents, including eulogies for the likes of Trinity Profs. Thom Hood and Morse Allen; assorted homilies and radio addresses; notes on diocesan conventions from the 1960s and 1970s; Connecticut church histories; thoughts on Bishop Seabury; guidance to anyone wanting to research his family’s history; memories of his father and grandfather; and a host of other random topics. After finishing the book, I wondered who in the world would bother reading it cover to cover before deciding it would only appeal to those who shared Prof. Cameron’s enthusiasm for Trinity College and mostly forgotten history. In short, only a handful of passionate eccentrics–including me.
That’s one of the secrets of Prof. Cameron’s books and why I keep plowing through them despite the many editorial problems. Prof. Cameron’s passion continues to shine through on almost every page, especially in Strictly Personal. Wrestling with his books over the pandemic summer, I kept wondering what kind of instructor Prof. Cameron was. Having worked in higher education for a decade before entering the media, I can attest that the standard Prof. Cameron set for a great teacher is a high one.
“A great teacher makes great demands upon his students, and he gains correspondingly great results,” Prof. Cameron said in a radio address which he included in Strictly Personal but, strangely, did not provide the date he offered it. “He is not easy on them or on himself. And he is certainly not one of the teachers so popular with the American public today. He has no tolerance for sloth or illiteracy. He is an enemy of the good. He wants the best. Like Confucius of old, when he explains one-fourth of the truth, and the student doesn’t go back and reflect and think out its implications in the remaining three-fourths for himself, he will make no effort to retain him. And, perhaps, we have so few great teachers today because the American public wants everyone to pass and can tolerate only the mediocre professor.”
I wonder if Prof. Cameron met the high standard he set. Based on his books, he would have certainly been a passionate instructor. Still, Prof. Cameron was onto something which I experienced some two decades after he left Trinity: the strength of a committed, passionate and engaged faculty. “At Trinity College we can fortunately maintain higher standards and long may we be permitted so to do,” he said in that radio speech.
Prof. Cameron died in 2006 at the age of 97, full of years and honors. His obituary featured a quote that embodies much of what comes through in his books.
“As I look back on a long career as professor and scholar, four ‘blessings’ stand out in my mind: the privilege of entering into the lives and works of a few authors, the sense of arriving at special competence in a few areas, the delight from association with a few productive and humane scholars and critics, and the hope (since so much has been passed on to me by others) that I may, perhaps, have been able to communicate some of my enthusiasm for ideas to my students,” he said.
I suspect Prof. Cameron was able to communicate more than a little of that enthusiasm in the classroom. As I get ready for another semester and my latest effort to showcase Samuel Peters as a transactional leader, I can attest that Prof. Cameron certainly communicated that enthusiasm through his books. During this challenging year, I’ve been blessed to study under Prof. Kenneth Walter Cameron, who, like so many members of the Trinity faculty, remains an excellent instructor, even a decade and a half after his death.
Originally from Jacksonville and now based out of Tallahassee, Kevin Derby ‘96, is the editor of Florida Daily and is studying for a Ph.D. in leadership at the University of the Cumberlands. Kevin’s career as a political writer started in 1994 when he covered the Connecticut gubernatorial, Cabinet, U.S. Senate and congressional elections for the Tripod.
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