It’s 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Dr. Lonnie Burnett is full of energy, in constant motion at the head of the classroom in Martin Hall. That’s a marked contrast to the sleepy-eyed freshmen and sophomores straggling in and plopping backpacks on the floor beside desks in History 201: U.S. History up to 1876.
“I’m a notorious morning person, and these kids at 8 a.m. are zombies,” the history professor joked later in his office down the hall.
This day, he moves from one side of the room to the other, words rapidly tumbling one after another in an excited rush to relay a story of people risking their lives for freedom. The Battle of Bunker Hill, the Olive Branch Petition, the Declaration of Independence … these are topics that students have heard before.
But never quite like this.
This is history with passion. It’s the story of painters depicting battlefield scenes so as to win the propaganda war at home and abroad. It is a group of successful men making a strategic decision to write a letter addressed to “The King’s Most Excellent Majesty” with the full expectation that King
George III would ignore it and a revolution would begin.
The more Burnett reveals, the more these names become men who put their families and livelihoods at risk for harm once a signature was affixed to a page. They were people whose neighbors may see them as traitors, who didn’t have the luxury of knowing their uncertain future one day would be studied in a free nation by a group of students in Martin Hall.
The atmosphere in the classroom changes. Hands are raised, questions asked, discussion begins. History – that lifeless list of dates and names – is beginning to take shape into something more.
From the front of the room, Burnett sees history come to life in the minds of his students.
“I want them to see a connection somewhere, that the past matters and affects us still,” he reflected later.
“That’s what history does – it gives us guidance for the future.”
History, he said, matters.
A Personal History
Lonnie Burnett has lived his entire life less than 15 minutes from the University of Mobile campus. As a child, he rode his bicycle on trails in the woods, camped beneath the trees, and watched over the years as construction crews raised building after building. He taught his daughter how to drive a car in the same parking lot on campus where his father taught him.
His love of history was born in the stories his father, Robert K. Burnett, told him of World War II – earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, parachuting behind enemy lines in France on D-Day, and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
Burnett saw what he could do with that curiosity about the past through the example of high school history teacher Calvin Crist who became a role model as a teacher passionate about his subject and caring for his students.
A self-described “natural ham,” Burnett set his sights on standing in front of a history class and bringing history to life through his gift of speaking and engaging audiences. But a “C” in Dr. Hazel Petersen’s introductory education class at Mobile College caused him to question his calling.
As Dr. Petersen-Walter now remembers it, there was no question in her mind that Burnett was a born educator.
“If I saw real potential in a student, I called them in for conferences. Lonnie and I had a nice discussion. He said he didn’t know if he could do it or not. I assured him that he could, because I knew he had the potential. He set realistic goals. He worked hard. From an average student as a sophomore, he graduated receiving the divisional award in education.
“I am just so proud of what he has become,” said Petersen-Walter, retired dean who served in a variety of academic capacities during her years at UMobile.
Burnett graduated from Mobile College with a bachelor of arts in 1979. His wife of 32 years, Lynne, graduated from UMobile in 1996, and daughter Lauren Burnett Wetzel graduated from UMobile in 2009.
He taught regular and honors U.S. history at the high school and middle school levels in the Mobile County Public School System from 1980 to 2004, serving as chairman of the history departments at Semmes Middle and Satsuma High schools. After earning a Master of Arts from the University of South Alabama, he taught several years as an adjunct history instructor at UMobile, retired from the public school system at the age of 46, and focused on his second career as a college professor and author.
He served as visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2002, where he earned a Ph.D. Burnett came to UMobile in 2005, eventually becoming chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a full professor.
In 2012 he gained tenure and a new assignment – assistant vice president of Academic Affairs for planning and evaluation. While continuing to teach one history class, Burnett is charged with leading the university’s Quality Enhancement Program (QEP), a critical part of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaccreditation process.
His energy and intelligence, obsessive attention to detail and planning, quick wit and genuine interest in everyone he meets made him an obvious choice to head up the SACS requirement to develop a university-wide plan for improvement in an academic area that involves the entire campus.
The university has chosen to focus on improving students’ writing skills through the development of Writing Intensive Networks, or WIN. Burnett said the need to improve writing skills and critical thinking is a nationwide need in this college-age generation whose primary means of written communication is text messaging.
The WIN project is being developed now and will ultimately expand and redefine how the university teaches writing intensive courses.
Burnett is excited about the challenge of engaging students, faculty, staff, trustees, donors and university friends in the project. He’s also realistic about the stresses that come with developing such a plan, measuring its effectiveness, and implementing it across all disciplines.
Perhaps the real reason he was given this assignment, he said with a laugh, is “I think they thought I could organize this and the faculty wouldn’t kill me.”
A Passion for People
Dr. Billy Hinson, retired chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said Burnett “gets along with everybody” and in 2006 was voted “Favorite Professor” by the student body.
Kristen Morris ’07 is part of history in the making in Washington, D.C., as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives staff. Burnett taught her at Satsuma High School as he was winding up his first career as a high school history teacher, then again in his second career as a professor at the University of Mobile.
“Dr. Burnett often says, ‘I don’t just teach history; I teach life.’ That could not be more true,” Morris said. “Dr. Burnett encouraged me to pursue my dreams of working on Capitol Hill and showed me through example that one’s chosen profession can become a source of happiness.”
Matthew Mitchell ’10 took six or seven classes under Burnett, who also served as an advisor for the social sciences major.
“I loved having him as a teacher,” Mitchell said. “He was passionate about the subject matter and he brought a certain level of enthusiasm to every class, even those 8 a.m. classes when we students didn’t exactly match it.”
As a freshman, Mitchell said he thought Burnett’s 5:30 a.m. office hours were “ridiculous.”
“By my senior year, I was working full time and taking classes when I could, so I cherished the fact that my advisor was one of the few awake on campus at that time of day. He was always welcoming, eager to help me figure out what classes I needed to take and what forms to fill out so I could claim my diploma. He’d ask me how work was going and life in general.
“I guess during those meetings I saw Dr. Burnett more like a friend than simply an ‘advisor,’” said Mitchell, married to Lisa Mitchell and now a social service caseworker with the Alabama Department of Human Resources in Hayden, AL.
Junior English major Will Drake said Burnett is extremely knowledgeable about the classes he teaches, “but he also allows his students plenty of space to resolve answers to their own questions. He revels in the opportunity to learn alongside his students and to see them relive history with him. He is light-hearted and humorous while he teaches, and he includes the funniest stories to help us remember the content.”
Colleague Dr. Julie Biskner, assistant professor of political science, said Burnett has a way of storytelling that harkens to the tradition of the classic Southern storyteller.
“Anything is interesting because of the way he tells about it,” she said. “Students love taking his class, specifically because he tries to find the elements of history that appeal to people, to make them see it’s not dry words on a page. He sees the funny side of life, and he shows that to them.”
Leadership in Action
Burnett has compiled an impressive scholarly research record. He has published two books with the University of Alabama Press, “Henry Hotze: Confederate Propagandist,” and “The Pen Makes a Good Sword: John Forsyth of the Mobile Register.”
He has written numerous articles, book chapters and reviews, and received the university’s Mitford Ray Megginson Research Award in 2006. He served as Faculty Council president for three years, has chaired several university committees, organized events such as Patriot’s Day, and for the past five years served as head graduation marshall. In department meetings, Burnett’s ideas were usually the ones embraced, such as establishing the annual Billy G. Hinson Lecture Series that brings nationally respected speakers to campus to present lectures on southern historical topics.
He believes community service is a vital outreach of the university. He serves on the Saraland Board of Education, is a member of the Board of Directors for the Alabama Historical Association, and is on the Board of Directors for the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame.
A member of First Baptist North Mobile, Burnett has taught adult Sunday School classes since he was a student at the university.
‘I Love This School’
With his personal history so intimately entwined in the history of the college, it’s no wonder Burnett loves the school. He has his own humorous stories to tell of the university’s history – such as the time the topic in chapel was stewardship.
“Somebody got the bright idea to teach us heathens about stewardship. They passed the collection plate. The religion students were usually on the first few rows, and they were more righteous than those of us on the back. By the time it came to the back row, people were taking money out of the collection plate. That lesson lasted about two weeks,” he said.
His work is fun, he says, and so is history.
“If you can’t make history fun, you can’t make anything fun,” he said. “History is not just an old, old book. It’s your life – your family.
“I’ve never left this place,” he added. “It’s kind of a family thing.”