Remembering Mark Finlay

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Mark R. Finlay, Assistant Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of History at Armstrong Atlantic State University, died in a single car accident on October 7, 2013 as he was returning home from a history conference in Philadelphia. He was 53. He is survived by his wife of 26 years, Kelly Applegate, and two sons, Greyson and Ellis.

Finlay grew up in Athens, Ohio, the son of Dr. Roger W. Finlay, a physics professor at Ohio University, and Dee Ann Finlay, a nurse. He graduated from Grinnell College and went to graduate school at Iowa State University, earning his PhD in 1992. While completing his dissertation, Finlay taught at Drake University, Johnson C. Smith University, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He began at Armstrong Atlantic in 1992. Among his myriad administrative accomplishments was the founding in 1996 of the university’s Honors Program, which he directed for eight years.

Finlay was an indefatigable researcher; there was no archive he didn’t want to explore. He would arrive at opening time and work until the doors closed. One major research interest was agricultural history. Mark would seek out and hand-pick local crops and stop to investigate farm equipment or a barn that caught his eye. Finlay’s scholarly oeuvre was consistent with his personality. He wrote on an incredible diversity of subjects: air conditioning in the South, agricultural by-products, German-British relations, bat guano in the Carolinas, loblolly pines, the international agricultural science community in the late 19th century, the ecological history of Georgia’s Ossabaw Island, chemistry at American land-grant universities, animals and antibiotics, chemurgy, tractors, and nutrition. He never published his dissertation on the creation of German agricultural experiment stations in the mid-19th century, but he was still named the co-winner of the Liebig-Wohler Friendship Prize in 1995 because of that fine piece of work. He relished the trips to Liebig’s castles that accompanied the award and greatly enjoyed being feted by the great chemist’s descendants. When asked why he never turned the dissertation into a book, Finlay characteristically pointed to the out-of-reach archival research in Germany needed before he could be satisfied. Though he published but one book, it was significant. His Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security (2009) won the Agricultural History Society’s Theodore Saloutos Memorial Prize for the best book in agricultural history published that year.

One of Finlay’s most cherished honors was receiving the Regents’ Teaching Excellence Award in 1999, presented to a professor selected from the thousands at Georgia’s public universities. He was the only faculty member ever invited to deliver an Armstrong Atlantic commencement speech. As part of his latest research on the preservation of Georgia barrier islands, Mark had the privilege of meeting and interviewing President Jimmy Carter in September.

Finlay served in a wide variety of capacities in local and international professional organizations, including the Society for the History of Technology, Agricultural History Society, Society for Industrial Archeology, and the History of Science Society. He discussed his research on C-Span, served as a consultant for the History Channel and the Ford & Edison Museum, and lent his expertise to various architectural projects seeking to incorporate a historical dimension. At the time of his death, Finlay was the book review editor of Agricultural History.

Mark was playful when the occasion demanded. Chairing a Darwin-themed History of Science Society meeting, Finlay found his session in competition with a Mary Kay cosmetics meeting next door. Competing with raucous singing and clapping by pink-clad acolytes, Finlay parlayed with spontaneous jokes and pithy comments about the shenanigans in the next room. He trekked through muddy Georgia marshes with students in his environmental studies course. He frequently built syllabi around quotidian objects, extrapolating broad lessons, as he did when teaching a class on capitalism and food which ended with a cod-themed dinner in his home.

Mark loved to sample local culture, eating at barbeque joints, dropping by blues clubs, and investigating small museums. His interests encompassed the wider world as well, as shown by his travels to nearly forty countries for scholarly work and with his family. A man of strong political convictions, Mark was an active participant in liberal politics. He was thrilled to meet presidential candidates face-to-face as they campaigned in Iowa and rode his bicycle to meetings in Savannah in support of Bill Clinton.

Mark was raised as an atheist; when he arrived at graduate school and made known his desire to study aspects of 19th century Europe, his lack of knowledge of the religious texts that galvanized much of the continent became unsustainable. Finlay, however, failed to recognize just what a flaw this was. The only solution was to coerce him to become acquainted with the scriptures and essential books of the three main religions. For two semesters in a graduate colloquium on the history of technology, he was required to look for technology in one sacred text per week. In that way, he became acquainted with the Old Testament, St. Aquinas, and the Quran as well as a host of others. Mark took it all with good cheer and faithfully mastered the documents. When he was looking for his first permanent job, he applied to Gardner-Dickinson University. He got past the first interview but learned that the institution required all faculty to declare an abiding belief in the Christian faith. Finlay was never tempted to do that. In fact, he wrote a letter to the search committee explaining his philosophical position. They did not hire him but the committee members expressed admiration for his candor.

Finlay’s gentle influence and erudition will continue to be felt through his soon-to-be-published work. At least three of his essays remain in press – on chemurgy at land-grant universities, transatlantic science in the 19th century, and natural resource management.

The family, through Armstrong Atlantic, has established the Mark R. Finlay Visiting Lecture Series to share his passion for new ideas with future generations of university students. To contribute, please send a check payable to the Armstrong Foundation with the memo “Mark Finlay Fund” to Office of Advancement, 113 Burnett Hall, Armstrong Atlantic State University, 11935 Abercorn Street, Savannah, GA 31419. You may also give online at https://armstrong15271.thankyou4caring.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=298.

By Alan I Marcus