Steve Ash: beloved teacher, distinguished historian, world-class friend 

Betty BeanObits, Opinion

I came across his photo while making my usual Monday social media rounds, and it made me smile.


It’s a great picture, taken by his wife, Jean C. Ash. She captured the twinkle in his eye, the big, dimpled grin signaling the belly laugh that was sure to follow. It’s all right there in that kind, friendly, intelligent face.

But then I saw the attached message shared from a University of Tennessee History Department Facebook post and it knocked the breath out of me:

“It is with great sadness that we wish to inform you that Dr. Steve Ash passed away on Sunday, October 10. He was a distinguished scholar of the Civil War, a devoted mentor to many of our graduate students, an award-winning teacher and a valued colleague in the department for many decades.

“Dr. Ash was among the department’s most popular and successful teachers, recognized with campus awards, including the UT Alexander Prize for Distinguished Research and Teaching and the college’s Lorayne Lester Award for Faculty Excellence. He guided 12 graduate students to completion of the Ph.D., and an equal number to the M.A. Among his students and colleagues, he was legendary for his keen editorial eye, improving dissertations and manuscripts with his thoughtful reading, incisive corrections and generous encouragement…”

Shock and sadness don’t begin to convey my reaction. I’ve known the Ashes since the early 1970s when they moved to Knoxville so Steve could work on his doctorate at UT. They were new graduates of Gettysburg College and hadn’t been married very long. They embraced their new home and held nothing back. Steve settled into the history department and Jeannie enrolled in the College of Communications, but soon found a spot in the news department at WIVK (radio stations had such things then, and WIVK had a big, award-winning one).

They thrived here, personally and professionally, and accumulated an expanding tribe of friends, which included me, my kids, our friends and my crazy brother John.

This is the kind of miserable news that demands to be shared, so I called my old colleague Jake Mabe, a former student of Steve’s, who, a generation after my time at UT, had come to consider Steve Ash his mentor.

“Best teacher I ever had,” Jake said.

“From the beginning, he just really cared about his students,” Jake said, recalling the Tennessee history class that was his introduction to Professor Ash.

“He took the time to have 10- or 15-minute conversations (in his office) with students and would have them write notes about themselves and their interests on index cards. And from the first day of class, almost, he’d call students by their names in class – he really got to know his students.”

Jake, who has been feeling poorly of late, maintained his ties with Steve after his college days.

“After I graduated, we’d meet every year or so at one of his haunts on the Strip, just to catch up, but he was the most disciplined man I ever knew. He would always leave right about 6 o’clock because he’d go to bed early and get up at 3 a.m. to write. His scholarship back in the ’90s was my introduction to social history – what was the home life of those folks?”

Jake recalls that nobody ever beat Steve in the “Who was the most famous person you ever met?” contest:

“He got to go in and have an audience with General Eisenhower at Gettysburg College when he was a kid. He also went to one of the major protests against the Vietnam war during the Nixon era.

“Steve got along with everybody, and I kind of learned how to treat people from being around him. He was always the same ­– I don’t want to say he treated people like he wanted to be treated, because that would be corny, but he displayed none of the egotism or the pettiness that you sometimes ran into in academia, and it meant a lot to me that he would check in on me from time to time. He was just such a good man. I’ll never forget that grin.

“I stepped outside tonight and talked to him for a minute. Told him he was one of the very few that I thought cared … Of all the teachers I had, he was unique. The way he dealt with undergrads, you would never know the man’s accomplishments. Not only was he the best teacher, but he made me a better person, and I don’t know if he ever knew it. He tried to instill in his students to think for themselves – ‘Education doesn’t end when you get a diploma. Don’t take things at face value.’ He was a scholar’s scholar and if every educator were like Steve Ash, the U.S. would kick ass. I told him I will never forget him.”

Here is the link to the history department tribute.

And here is the link to a list of the published works of Stephen V. Ash available for purchase on Amazon.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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