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Moshe Gershovich
Moshe Gershovich. photo Tim Fitzgerald / University Relations

MVHC @ 50

Leo Adam Biga

For UNO Associate Professor Moshe Gershovich, history "is like a big jigsaw puzzle.  One of my hobbies is jigsaw puzzles.  You open the box and you find all these pieces which appear unrelated and each one by itself is really meaningless.  Only once you start putting them together do you get the picture.  It's all about connections. You connect one thing from here with another from there and you build a picture."  The difference being, of course, that history is not fixed.  "The fascinating thing about history," Gershovich says, "is that it's a little bit like a Harry Potter jigsaw puzzle in that the picture keeps changing because new facts and new perceptions are added.  Historians bring their own personality and belief system to it.  Each makes different selections and so the picture you get will always change."

Gershovich recently completed a puzzle of a different sort, organizing the UNO history department's 50th annual Missouri Valley History Conference, which ran March 1-3.  As program chair he fit dozens of presenters, speakers, panelists, commentators and moderators into sessions at the Embassy Suites in the Old Market.  "This is really the tapestry, as I call it, of putting together all these disparate parts into something that is coherent and interesting," he says.

The conference is a reflection of its chair, a job that rotates among department faculty.   That allowed Gershovich, an Israeli native and expert in Middle Eastern history, to book speakers who address topics "close to my heart."  That included 2007's featured speaker, University of Chicago Professor Fred Donner, an authority on Islamic history.  Donner's MVHC talk explored "New Views on the Origins of Islam."  The topic, Gershovich says, also illustrates how the conference examines current issues "of great importance and relevance."

Programs of local interest were offered, too, including panels discussing new research on Omaha's history, the 1898 TransMississippi Exposition and integration in Omaha Public Schools.

The MVHC, which Gershovich believes to be "one of the oldest and largest regional conferences of history in this country," was the brainchild of former UNO history department Chair A. Stanley Trickett.  UNO Emeritus history Professor Harl Dalstrom, a graduate student at then-Omaha University when the conference was devised, says Trickett was a "dynamic and energetic ma" who saw the event as a means to enhance historical scholarship and to bolster the reputation of the department, college and university.

The conference began small, held over a day-and-half with an orientation toward the teaching of history.  In 1980 the conference began operating as an independent nonprofit corporation, maintaining close ties to the university.  It's also grown considerably.  Today it is a three-day, scholarly conference that attracts academicians, researchers, authors, students and amateur history enthusiasts from the Midwest and beyond.  A record-240 participants from 26 states were scheduled for 2007 with 140 papers to be presented.  Unfortunately, a blizzard hit Omaha on the conference's opening day and one-third of the participants were unable to attend.

Dalstrom says the growth has been aided by "the connections we have around the country and around the world with other scholars."  That includes a close relationship with the Northern Great Plains History Conference.  "These two meetings are very complementary and mutually supportive," Dalstrom says.  Just as history is all about connections, a history conference is all about the exchange of knowledge between scholars.  "This is really very basic to a conference," he says.  "I think most people come away from these gatherings better informed and certainly reinvigorated.  Just the process of listening to papers and talking with colleagues from other institutions, you get a new zest for your work."  Opportunities for interaction range from formal panel settings to informal receptions.

In line with what Gershovich calls "the promotion of knowledge," the conference also affords a forum for graduate students and others to find possible publication outlets for their research.  The MVHC recognizes the best graduate paper with a cash award.  Editors of regional scholarly journals also come looking for material and offer publication guidelines in panels and roundtable discussions.  "It's really a great opportunity for students to see how the profession works," Gershovich says, "in terms of people gathering and exchanging the fruits of their scholarship and thus promoting research."

Unlike other conferences that rotate among cities, the MVHC always has been held in Omaha, though at various sites in town.  Dalstrom, a veteran of nearly every gathering and twice its coordinator in the late 1960s, joined former UNO history colleagues at the 2007 conference for an informal oral history panel chronicling the MVHC's 50 years.  He says the conference has survived this long due to the support of the College of Arts and Sciences and the university's administration.

He finds it noteworthy that from the start there has been "a strong effort to bring in nationally known scholars."  He recalls the "tremendous experience" in 1958 of hearing speak John D. Hicks, the foremost scholar on the Populist movement.  "Great scholars," he says, "come alive for you."

By looking at past programs and landmark events from the conference, Gershovich says, one can chart where America was in relation to certain social trends.  For example, it wasn't until 1963 that a woman presented.  Similarly, it took until 1965 before there was a paper on the African-American experience.

Today, he noted, women and African-American perspectives routinely are offered.

He adds that as UNO's history curriculum diversified to include a broader world perspective, so too did the conference expand beyond solely American or European themes.  He said African and Asian subjects are increasingly prevalent, as are treatises that reexamine all sorts of history.  Papers at this year's conference, for example, took revisionist views of the Lewis & Clark expedition and the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.  A longstanding emphasis on military history, meanwhile, continues due to the subject's popularity and the MVHC's relationship with the Society for Military History.

Gershovich says the conference, like history itself, is not just for historians or students or buffs.

"No matter what kind of career or life persons choose for themselves," he says, "history helps them sharpen their intellectual skills.  The way I see myself as an educator is as a pencil sharpener.  I try to help individuals root out more sophisticated ways of looking at things and of making better connections."

Note: This story originally ran in the 2007 Spring edition of the UNO Alum.


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