By Raegan Turner | Staff Writer
Distinguished and beloved former Baylor professor, Dr. Thomas L. Charlton, died last week on Jan. 25. His death marked the end of a life full of education, service and curiosity.
Born in Arkansas, Charlton was not a native Texan despite growing up in Texas and spending the majority of his life and most of his work focused on Texans and their history. A life in academia awaited him after receiving his undergraduate degree at Baylor University and his master’s and doctorate from the University of Texas.
When Charlton returned to Baylor as a faculty member in the history department and director of the Texas Collection Library, he quickly founded the Baylor University Institute for Oral History (BUIOH). The program eventually became nationally recognized as exceptional due to the vast collection and acquisition of quality oral history interviews and the processing of important memoirs.
Not only was Charlton director of this program for 23 years, he was also the co-founder of the Texas Oral History Association (TOHA) in 1982. He would serve as interim and official president of the group and spearheaded its growth into one of the largest regional oral history associations in the nation.
Within the Oral History Association, Charlton was highly respected and admired for his propensity to serve and educate, evidenced by the nine positions he held, two of which were Editor of the Oral History Association newsletter (1975-85) and Chairman of the Committee on Endowment, (1986-89).
The current director of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Stephen Sloan, who is also an associate professor of history, was a good friend and mentee of Charlton.
Sloan’s first impression of the former vice-provost for research occurred while he was a master’s student seeking advice on graduate programs; Charlton warmly welcomed him, provided guidance and later even recommended the position Sloan currently occupies. Sloan expressed the primary ideals and aims of Charlton throughout his career.
“Think creatively. Think good thoughts. He saw his work as much more than just traditional research and traditional teaching.” Sloan said. “He was very creative and had these grand dreams and grand ideas of new things to be done and new ways to approach old things.”
Charlton impacted not only Sloan’s life, but the university as well. BUIOH, which Charlton founded, is the oldest research program on campus. Most of Charlton’s own research consisted of interviewing Texans of from all areas and stages of life.
Along with conducting extensive research, Charlton educated Baylor students and historians alike. He was a professor and author of a myriad of highly-ranked scholarly publications and professional presentations, along with the book, Oral History for Texans, both first and second edition, which is to this day an important source for professional and nonprofessional historians.
Charlton’s dedication and hard work did not only pertain to academics. The oral history trailblazer was also a man of faith and served at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco and supported international mission work such as the Shalom Children’s Center in Ghana, Africa. Associate pastor Sharlande Sledge boasted about Charlton’s consistently welcoming and loving demeanor.
“We remember him as a glad and generous witness to God’s delight in each child of God … When I think of Tom’s presence in the church during my time here, I will always remember his faithfulness to God’s children, especially the youngest ones, starting here at Lake Shore where he taught toddlers and then first through third graders in Sunday school for many years.” Sledge described.
Charlton battled Parkinson’s disease for the last years of his life though was said to have retained his joy for life, goofy humor and love for delicious food. He is survived and will be missed by his wife, Rebecca Sharpless, and sons, John and Richard, along with their wives and children.