The Friday on October 11, 2013 after Dr. Mark Finlay’s sudden passing his many family, friends, colleagues and students quietly filled the Fine Arts Auditorium on Armstrong’s campus. It was apparent that he had touched many lives, that his twenty plus years at Armstrong were involved and accomplished, and that it was only the beginning of remembering how fully he had lived. This interview for the journal had just previously been conducted and the current issue is now dedicated to him.
His research in environmental history and agricultural science motivated the discussion, but Dr. Finlay’s scope of interests proved to be as ambitious and far-reaching as he. At the time, he was investigating antibiotics and nitrates, but also President Truman and Korea to name a few. He taught topics like food history as well as modern Germany. The interviewer as a history major had recently taken his class, Environmental History of the American South, and can attest to his genuine commitment in teaching. The main push was to understand each reading’s significance which he called “Footnote Three,” a term pinpointing the roots of an author’s thesis. When asked how that searching curiosity translated into his own work Dr. Finlay freely admitted after considering his many on-going projects that he was “probably too curious.”
He explained the long list of accomplishments that had begun at an early age. At age ten he began reading the individual biographies in the library alphabetically starting with Abigail Adams, making it to about “K” or “L.” In the eighth grade he then wrote a forty page paper on the Know-Nothing Party, with the proper citations. In retrospect it seemed like the path to him becoming a professor was natural. He said, “I knew getting a MA and a PhD was just what you did.” And he did so from Iowa State University in 1992. Dr. Finlay joined the Armstrong faculty that same year and went on to create and direct the University’s Honors Program in 1996, and become Assistant Dean of the College of Liberal Arts in 2002.
The breadth of his scholarship is beyond listing. He was book review editor of Agricultural History and he once told the class, “I feel lucky because I come from Iowa and I know where my food comes from.” In revisiting that idea in the interview he supposed the main takeaway could be that within a wider perspective from the food people choose to eat to the policies governing it, decisions do matter. His book Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security was aptly awarded the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Prize for best book in the field of agricultural history in 2009. Regardless, Dr. Finlay remained hesitant to highlight himself whatsoever, insisting “other professors are doing interesting research besides me.” More importantly, he was excited to praise others’ new, good work. At one point he reached over to a book stack to grab a pre-published monograph and held it up with both hands saying, “I can’t wait for this book to come out!”
That exclamation and many others like it that day were just glimpses into his sincere enthusiasm for all that he did. The interviewer will personally remember how he paid his students the honest respect of constantly challenging them to do better. It is humbling to have had the opportunity to briefly share in the memory of a truly dedicated professor who will needless to say be missed by many. Thanks to him other students like myself may remember to look up “Footnote Three” as he would have, eager to know and convey meaningful things.
(Interviewed by Victoria Do)
Victoria Do, “‘Footnote Three’: An Interview with the Late Professor Mark Finlay," Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no. 3 (Nov. 2013).