Post written by Katie Crook, originally published at the Southern Oral History Program blog, Field Notes
I was a little apprehensive, to say the least. On a Friday afternoon at rush hour, I found myself driving away from the happy little bubble of Blue Heaven to a city with which I had absolutely no familiarity. I was nervous about finding parking, arriving on time, finding the right building. Mostly, I was nervous about my first interview for the Southern Oral History Program. I had no idea what to expect, hoping fervently that my recorder—and backup iPhone—would capture the interview I had anticipated for weeks. I was nervous about how the interview would proceed, what I would say, what he would say. In short, as I waited for Dr. Jim Carmichael to return to his fourth floor office at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I wished I were back home in the familiar folds of Chapel Hill, with friends on this wintry Friday evening.
What happened next caught me completely off-guard. As I anxiously walked to my interviewee’s office, I caught my first glimpse of him. A small man, he was dressed in a fashionable leather jacket reminiscent of a cowboy, a resemblance echoed by his handlebar moustache. Dr. James Carmichael, an esteemed professor of library history, literally welcomed me into his cozy office with open arms, opting not for a handshake but a full hug. He graciously thanked me for coming to interview him and invited me to take a seat. Instantly, I felt my nerves disappear as we began discussing familiar topics, like the notoriously hellish parking in Chapel Hill. I found myself easing up, even smiling, as I plugged in my recorder and began asking my questions.
As it were, my nerves for this interview proved to be completely unfounded. Dr. Carmichael had me laughing and reminiscing right along with him as he detailed his life’s story, full of colorful characters like himself. Again and again, I was struck by the sincerity of his words and his complete vulnerability. We talked about his substance abuse, his “bizarre” wedding to ex-wife Bunny, the antebellum house he called home, and his road to sobriety. We talked about his lovers, his emotional turmoil, and his subsequent recovery and victory over alcoholism and mental illness. Clearly, my apprehension about interviewing a stranger was not shared by my interviewee, as he seemed to relish this opportunity to express himself.
Dr. Carmichael refused to shy away from sensitive topics, willing to discuss anything from his original rejection from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to the sexual favors he granted to a guard so he could place a phone call from jail. He talked about his lowest point, in the throes of mental illness and at odds with himself and his own sexuality. He discussed his recovery, his discovery of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the many eccentric friends who helped him along his path to sobriety. In the end, this unassuming professor gave a profoundly honest and touching account of the incredible life he had led.
Dr. Carmichael’s life—as far as I could tell from the two hours I spent interviewing him that February Friday night—is not defined by failures or defeat. His story is one of marked triumph, over illness, abuse, and insecurity. Though he described himself as a “troubled” person as a young man, any trace of that trouble seems to have been replaced by his exuberance and love of life. His love of his family, friends, and cats (yes, his cats) was absolutely infectious, and I left his office wanting only to someday be able to spend more time talking to him about his life. During his interview, Dr. Carmichael said to me, “I think my talent in life is being a friend,” and after listening to two hours of his life story, I can certainly agree. Dr. Carmichael is one of those rare people that we only meet occasionally in our lives—full of life, humility, and a contagious love of all people. I felt truly honored to have met him.
As I was leaving his Greensboro office, I felt honestly disappointed that our interview was complete. As anxious as I had been just hours earlier, my interview with Dr. Carmichael was not only fascinating, but helped put my own life in perspective. I suggested that we should share coffee and more stories the next time Dr. Carmichael finds himself in Chapel Hill, as he often does for research. I sincerely hope he takes me up on my offer.