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Michelle Geyer '10

We Are Knox...

Mary Jo Festle '83


Professor of History, Elon University

Self-Designed Major in Social Change

By Christopher Poore '14

To historian Mary Jo Festle '83, interdisciplinary isn't just an adjective; it's a lifestyle.

Coming to Knox in 1979 from Chicago, Festle, a self-described "city-girl," struggled to find a major that included her many and diverse passions.

"I was concerned with urban problems, having grown up in the city," Festle said. "I was concerned with poverty and inequality, ethnic prejudice, homelessness -- those sorts of urban problems. And I was looking for a way to study those problems, and it wasn't like there was just one major that cared about those things and looked at those things."

Understanding these problems wasn't enough for Festle. She wanted to solve them. Opting for a self-designed major called Social Change that straddled sociology, history, economics, and political science, Festle began to explore solutions.

"I wanted to study how societies and cities could get better, could address some of the inequalities I was concerned about," said Festle. "It gave me a real sense of ownership."

During this time, Festle began to take history classes with Professor Penny Gold, a mentor who would prove instrumental to her future. "Penny Gold really took me under her wing and encouraged me to think about things."

Gold encouraged Festle to apply to fellowships for funding, read her essays, and oversaw Festle's Honors Project, which focused on the Chicago Women's Trade Union League. Festle continued her historical research during graduate school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She completed a master's thesis on the Black civil rights movement and doctoral work on women's sports as an intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. This would later become her first book Playing Nice: Politics and Apologies in Women's Sports.

Now a professor of history at Elon University, Festle's scholarly interest has shifted to medical history as a result of her personal interest in cystic fibrosis -- a genetic disease that afflicted two of Festle's brothers. Lung transplantation was just becoming a viable option when her brother, John, succumbed to the disease. Five years later, when Bob neared the end stages of the disease, the family began to consider the option seriously.

"You're going to do what? You're going to take lungs from a dead person and put them in my brother?" Festle recalls asking herself. "It sounded like going to the moon."

Festle began personal research into lung transplants, investigating the pros and cons of the procedure. Sometime during this process, her inner historian kicked in. Soon, with her brother's blessing, "it became a professional thing as well as a personal thing," Festle recalled. After he received the transplant, Bob was able to finish his degree, began teaching, and started a master's degree program in school counseling before succumbing to chronic rejection of his transplanted lung. "It's heartbreaking, but when you're 22, to get five more years is a pretty nice thing," said Festle.

It was the study of lung transplantation that eventually brought Festle back to Knox as a speaker in the Burkhardt Lecture series to discuss her journey and her forthcoming book about the history of lung transplantation in the U.S. The engagement proved to be an opportunity for reflection.

"The great thing about going to a liberal arts school is you learn how to learn," Festle said while on campus. "You're encouraged to be curious and to learn because the world is ever-changing, and the important skill is to be able to think critically and to learn new areas."