Singing history professor dies

Dr. Allen Dennis, right, strikes a pose with Dr. William Welch and Dr. Scout Blum in the College of Arts and Sciences following a commencement.

Dr. Allen Dennis, right, strikes a pose with Dr. William Welch and Dr. Scout Blum in the College of Arts and Sciences following a commencement.

A singing, songwriting, history-loving academic has left the Trojan Nation. Dr. Allen Dennis, former chair of history and associate dean of Arts and Sciences, died Monday, Nov. 5 at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Miss. after a lengthy illness.

Dr. Dennis, an Athens, Tenn. native, was the first member of his family to graduate college – earning the bachelor’s degree in 1965 from Tennessee Wesleyan College, where he won the Tennessee State Extemporaneous Speaking Championship the same year. He was a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Pi Gamma Mu and Omicron Delta Kappa, and met his first wife, Linda, covering a baseball game as sports editor of the Daily Post-Athenian.

He completed the master’s degree in history in Starkville, Miss., and joined the faculty at Delta State University in 1968. He completed the Ph.D. in history at Mississippi State in 1979 and Dr. Dennis continued to serve as on the faculty, serving as the department chair from 1993 – 1998, when he retired in Mississippi and moved to TROY with his second wife, Brenda,  to serve as the History Department chair, a post he held until 2005, when he was named associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences until 2006.

“Following a splendid career at Delta State University, Dr. Dennis joined our faculty and taught at TROY for 10 years,” said Chancellor Jack Hawkins, Jr. “He was a good man, a man of faith, and he made a lasting impression on the students he so ably served.”

During his 40-year career, he taught U.S. History and was an expert in Civil War history. He wrote and performed Civil War-period songs and developed a very popular first-person portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln. He routinely entertained his classes with guitar playing and singing. His love for his discipline and students was reflected by his being honored with the highest faculty awards presented at Delta State University and TROY – the S.E. Kossman Outstanding Faculty Award at DSU and the Ingalls Award at TROY. He was also an Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner at TROY.

“He just loved teaching,” said Dr. Robert Pullen, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at TROY who hired Dr. Dennis.

“He believed in doing what faculty was supposed to do and believed in working to support the faculty under his direction. I think he was one of the best hires I ever made – he was an excellent department chair and a very exquisite associate dean,” he said.

When a stroke forced Dr. Dennis to leave TROY, Dr. Pullen said the “great sadness” in Dennis’ life was missing his students and being in the classroom to ‘see the lights come on in the eyes of the students’ when they grasped what he was explaining.

“For those who knew him well, there’s a lot to remember about him, but chief among them was what a wonderful teacher he was. He loved to teach, and he loved his students,” Dr. Pullen said.

Dr. Dennis, however, had a talent for blending serious and complex issues with humor and music.

He served as head of the academics committee during an accreditation reaffirmation – in what most in higher education would agree to be the lifeblood of an institution. While those processes can come with high stress levels, Dr. Dennis responded with the creation of “The Ballad of SACS,” to tune of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

“We found good reason to have him sing the song often,” Dr. Pullen said. “He brought a lot of humor in what he did. Even when it was serious, he found a way to make it interesting and fun.”

That ability had been a carry-over from his time at Delta State, when Dr. Dennis enjoyed performing inchautauquaswhere he portrayed Jimmie Rodgers, and performed on riverboat tours on the Mississippi River. He kept the play-by-play for all Delta State home basketball games. He was present for the national championships won by the Lady Statesmen basketball teams, and wrote a song for them during their championship run in 1978 called the “Ballad of the Lady Statesmen.” He dedicated the conference room for the history department (in Bailey Hall) to the memory of his friends Dr. Sammy Cranford and Dr. William LaForge, dubbing it the Cranford-LaForge Conference Room.

Delta State President Emeritus Dr. Kent Wyatt, who recommended Dr. Dennis to Chancellor Hawkins, recalled his “close, personal friendship” with Dr. Dennis, who helped care for Dr. Wyatt’s mother following the death of his father.

“Allen was an exceptional person and a friend,” Wyatt said. “He was well-liked by everyone, was exceptionally bright and was a good writer as well as academician. He was the backbone of the faculty movement trying to enhance Delta State.”

“He was just an all-around good person,” he added.

Dennis periodically served as an interim minister for the Church of Christ, preached for area churches, and directed music at various churches. He was a former member of the Mississippi Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, former member of the Bolivar County Community Action Program, and former president of the Cleveland Lions Club. He was a member of the Southern Historical Association and a longtime, dedicated member of the Mississippi Historical Society (MHS), serving as president from 1997-98 and as a member of the Society’s board of directors. He served as news and notes editor, book review editor, bibliographical editor, and assistant editor of The Journal of Mississippi History(published by the Mississippi Department of Archives & History and MHS). He compiled an invaluable index for the first 40 volumes of The Journal of Mississippi History, personally reading thousands of pages and thereby producing a two-volume index that bears the stamp of one person. He authored and edited several books, including Kemper County Rebel:  The Civil War Diary of Robert Masten Holmes, C.S.A.; James Blackwood Memories; and Southern Miscellany:  Essays in Honor of Glover Moore. He also authored several dozen book reviews and scholarly articles, including an article on the Battle of Tupelo that was published in The Conservation Fund’s The Civil War Battlefield Guide.

He moved to Brandon, Mississippi, in August 2017 to be close to his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. He is survived by his daughter Farrah, her husband Tony Cox, and their son David. He is also survived by his ex-wives Linda Dennis and Brenda Dennis. He was an extremely proud “Daddy” and “GrandDaddy.”

Graveside services will begin at 1 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 12, at Crestview Memorial Gardens in Brandon, Miss. A memorial service will follow at 2 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall at Meadow Grove Baptist Church, also in Brandon.

Pallbearers are Jody Correro, Lynn Buford, Bo Morgan, Grant Fox, Nick Pouncey, Brad Thompson, Tim Earley, and Lee Garland. Honorary pallbearers are Elbert Hilliard, Jerry Dallas, Curt Lamar, Kent Wyatt, Mike Kinnison, Robert Pullen, Doc Kirby, and Charles Sallis. The family asks those attending (in person or in spirit) to wear orange in honor of Allen’s deep love for Tennessee Vols football. In lieu of flowers, the family asks memorials be made to the Dennis-Cox Baseball Award c/o DSU Foundation, P O Box 3141, Cleveland, MS 38733; or, the Dennis Family Cemetery Fund c/o Robert Dennis, 1163 Dreamfield Dr., Soddy Daisy, TN 37379.


Doc Kirby and Farrah Dennis contributed to this story.