Q&A with Ed Williams, Shelby County Historian.
There are plenty of history buffs in this area, but only one person has the official title of Shelby County Historian. Appointed to the position in 1994, Ed Williams was previously the president of an engineering firm in Memphis and also served as a Shelby County Commissioner. He chatted with our very own Vance Lauderdale about his duties, his office, and his impressive salary.
Hello, Mr. Williams. As you probably know, I write the "Ask Vance" history column in our magazine.
Are you familiar with it?
Yes. [long pause]
Uh, I told my colleagues there was an official Shelby County Historian, and I didn't see why I couldn't get that job.
Well, there have actually been only two of us — Ellen Davies Rodgers, who served 35 years before me, and when she died I took over. The county historian is actually appointed for life. You can't remove them, even for cause. If they are guilty of a felony . . .
[Hmmm, why would he bring that up? not spoken out loud]
That wouldn't disqualify you. The only thing that disqualifies you is if you resign or move out of town.
It sounds like a nice job. What were your qualifications?
I have a master's degree in history from the University of Memphis. But my bachelor's degree is in mechanical engineering from Auburn, and I used to be the president of an engineering company here.
What are your duties, exactly?
The county historian has only one duty, and that is to attend the meetings of the Public Records Commission. As I said, it's a lifetime appointment, and when Ms. Rodgers had the job, I thought that was a terrible arrangement because she was a notorious absentee [from those meetings]. But now I'm seeing the merits of it [laughs].
And you have that wonderful office in the Shelby County Archives Building with your name on the door and everything. You ought to see where I work.
Well, I do have considerable space, but I'm only in the office on Tuesday afternoons. Years ago, when we were in another space, I went on vacation for two weeks, and when I got back, they had moved me! So now I keep that office purposefully disorganized so it will be difficult for them to move me without my presence there.
Yes, I use that same trick here. They haven't caught on yet. [Yes, we have, Vance. — ed.] So it sounds like a pretty good job to me.
But the county historian doesn't receive any pay. When I was appointed, they said I would get $1 a year, but I have yet to see that first dollar. The first 10 years, the excuse was that the county doesn't cut checks for less than 10 dollars, so I thought I'd wait 10 years and finally get that $10 check, but I haven't seen that either.
A dollar a year? That's a bit less than what I'm paid here. I'm not sure I want the job now.
I don't have a staff, and I don't have a budget. You know, I don't even have a wastebasket because I'm not supposed to throw anything away.
But you certainly stay busy with other projects?
Yes, the Civil War is my favorite subject, and I've written three books on local history. Fustest with the Mostest is about the military career of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. This book was actually sold with a commemorative edition of a Colt revolver, the same kind Forrest would have used to plug any Yankees that got within range. And then there is Confederate Victories at Fort Pillow. The third book is kind of my best-seller, a little paperback called Early Memphis and Its River Rivals. And I give talks around town and write a monthly history column for the Main Street Journal.
So what are the other benefits of being the Shelby County Historian?
Well, with that dollar-a-year pay scale, you only have to do what you really want to do.
I definitely like that attitude.
Yes, I enjoy it. And let me tell you, if you ever get any really easy local history questions, feel free to give me a call.
Sorry, Ed. The easy questions stay with me.