The Bulloch County Historical Society this week honored one of its founding members, Del Presley, with its first-ever Distinguished Fellow Award, and two artists who have brought the arts and history together, Michael Braz and Mical Whitaker, with lifetime honorary memberships.
"Earlier this summer, you changed the bylaws to allow us formally to select and to recognize individuals whose contributions to the community and to the society are so significant that they deserve special, permanent recognition," Historical Society President Joe McGlamery reminded members Monday. "Today, we honor three such individuals."
The honorees have other things in common. All three also have been honored by the Averitt Center for the Arts: Braz and Presley as the center's Legends in the Arts inductees for 2009 and 2013, respectively, and Whitaker with the naming of the new Mical Whitaker Black Box Theater in March.
Besides making their own, separate contributions to enlivening local history, the three collaborated on a musical, historical drama, "A Place to Call Home." Presley wrote the play, and the songs, as a gift to Statesboro on the city's bicentennial in 2003.
He even had the tunes in mind. Braz transcribed these to musical notation and used the single-line melodies to create the piano, chorus and orchestra parts. Whitaker then directed the show, as the first production on the new stage of the Emma Kelly Theater at the Averitt Center for the Arts in 2004.
Now a professor emeritus of music, Braz has taught at Georgia Southern University for 24 years. He is principal keyboardist of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and performed in the 2014 Savannah Music Festival.
A former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, Braz has traveled globally as a music educator, clinician and performer. During one sabbatical year, he taught faculty and students of various ages and backgrounds in England, Nepal and China. He is also widely recognized as a composer. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in music from the University of Miami and a doctorate as a University Fellow at Florida State University.
Braz previously received Georgia Southern's President's Medal and the Statesboro Herald's 2003 Humanitarian of the Year honor.
For the university's centennial in 2006, he wrote an opera, "A Scholar Under Siege." It dramatizes Marvin Pittman's 1941 firing as president of what was then Georgia Teachers College by Gov. Eugene Talmadge over Pittman's lack of support for racial segregation.
Years earlier, while teaching at Barry University in Miami, Braz wrote and premiered his first opera, "Memoirs from the Holocaust," inspired by a visit to the Dachau concentration camp site.
"I've always respected the Historical Society and have done some service work with them, but mainly I've been interested in history since I was a child," Braz said Monday.
Whitaker gets around
Whitaker is artistic director of the Statesboro Youth Theater and a Georgia Southern University emeritus assistant professor of theater.
He was born in Metter but grew up in New Jersey and had a performing arts career, mainly as a director, in New York City before returning to Georgia. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from North Carolina A&T State University and studied further with Howard University, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Circle in the Square Theatre School.
While in New York, Whitaker founded the East River Players in Harlem, directed the International Black Theatre Festival at Lincoln Center, served as artistic director for the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art and was producer and director for a radio show, "The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Hour," on the National Black Network.
After returning to Georgia, he directed or acted in more than 50 stage productions during his 20 years teaching full-time at Georgia Southern. He continues to teach African-American Theatre courses.
In addition to his leadership of the Statesboro Youth Theater, Whitaker directs Averitt STARS community theater productions and is also the artistic director of the Arts at Willow Hill.
In 2013, he was inducted to the Georgia Theatre Hall of Fame. Last spring, the creation of the Mical Whitaker Scholarship for the Study of African American Theatre was announced during an event at the GSU Center for Art and Theatre.
"I've always been interested in history, but since I've been back in Georgia, it's sort of like history has found me," Whitaker said of his Historical Society induction.
His involvement with the society, he said, ultimately stems from his direction of "A Place to Call Home."
More recently, Whitaker has portrayed Professor William James, the pioneering black educator for whom William James Middle School and the William James Educational Complex are named, in special one-man performances for the Historical Society and elsewhere. The society's 2015 Tales from the Tomb event recently was canceled because of rain, but Whitaker said he wants to continue to act in these in the future. He is developing a characterization of "Statesboro Blues" writer and musician Blind Willie McTell.
First Distinguished Fellow
Presley is a founding member of the Bulloch County Historical Society, which held its first official meeting in April 1973.
"From those early days of just … over 40 years ago, Del, when only a few gathered together, to today's membership, which I'm told now exceeds 375, Del Presley's love of our society is evident, and it is mutual," McGlamery said.
Presley served as the first director of the Georgia Southern University Museum from 1982 until his retirement in 1999. He then was named both the museum's emeritus director and a GSU emeritus professor of English, having taught 30 years and also served as a coach of cross-country teams.
He and his wife, Beverly, frequent collaborators on historical projects, arrived at Georgia Southern together in 1969. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Mercer University, Presley had gone to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before earning his doctorate from Emory University.
In addition to Statesboro's bicentennial musical, Presley authored the book "The Southern Century: Georgia Southern University, 1906–2006," published in the centennial year. Along with the late Marvin Goss, Presley edited "Out of the Past," a book of historical columns selected from those Maude Brannen Edge wrote for The Bulloch Times in the 1940s and '50s.
It was published by the Bulloch County Historical Society, and Presley has written a number of other books and articles about Georgia Southern and the area's history.
Presley also developed the Historical Society's partnership with the Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Foundation, which funds the placement of historical markers and other projects.
"Our initial recipient has done so much for the society and our community that I'm tempted to call him overqualified," said McGlamery, who is also president of Statesboro Herald Publishing Co. "Dr. Delma E. Presley's contributions to the intellectual life of our community are both broad and influential."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.