Procrastination Kills: The Historian in Dealey Plaza

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William Marina was a fine historian. I wish he had been a better marketer.

On November 22, 1963, he took a group of his students to Dealey Plaza to see President Kennedy. As far as anyone knows, he was the only professional historian in the Plaza when the gunshots were fired.

He told me he hit the ground as soon as he heard them.

For almost 40 years, he taught a university course on the Kennedy assassination. Here, he showed remarkable marketing ability. His main goal was to teach a course on historiography. Historiography is the study of the writing of history: how documents are discovered, how they are interpreted, and how they are defended. Of all the courses for undergraduate history majors that is truly hated, historiography is that course. The only person I have ever known as an undergraduate who really liked the course on historiography was me. I was the only person in that classroom, 50 years ago this year, who was really interested in issues of epistemology: “What can we know, and how can we know it?” I would have taken the course, even if it had not been required for graduation, but if it had not been required for graduation, I could not have taken the course. No one else would have signed up.

Marina understood this early. When he offered a course on historiography, almost no students enrolled. So, he started offering his course on the Kennedy assassination. He told me that he never offered this course when there were not more students trying to get into the class than there were spaces available. What did he teach in the course? How documents are discovered, how they are interpreted, and how they are defended.

Year after year, one or two students in a class discovered something unique that he had not heard of before. For example, he had not known that a drug that Jack Ruby was taking creates violent responses in a significant number of people who take the drug. A woman who took the course was also a nurse. She mentioned this in a class discussion.

He never wrote the book on the Kennedy assassination that he told me for years that he was planning to write. He took notes. He saved those notes. But he never sat down to put those notes in a final format.

This bothered me a great deal. On April 27, 2009, I wrote an article with him in mind. It was on not procrastinating. I featured the example of Murray Rothbard, who did not procrastinate. I sent it to him. I wrote this:

It is steady as you go. It is line upon line. It is cumulative. If you are working on several projects, be sure that you have a schedule to complete each one in sequence. Stick to your schedule. If you don’t, you will probably die with all of them incomplete and fragmentary.So, you must prioritize. Be in a position to reschedule your time, so that if you ever find out you are terminal, you can complete the main one. This means that you must steadily complete sections of the main one. Get them finished. Don’t assume that you have 20 years.

You can read it here. On June 30, 2009, I wrote a detailed marketing plan for the JFK book project. I posted it here. I wrote this: “He has been writing a book on this for 30 years. He never finishes. I am afraid he will die before going public.” I sent it to him. He did not reply.

On July 7, 2009, he died of a heart attack.

CONCLUSION

For decades, I have had as my motto: “Procrastination kills.” My staff once had a lapel button made for me to wear that announced this.

The story of William Marina is now my supreme example.

If you have a story, tell it. If you have an insight, share it. If you have a plan, start it.

The clock is ticking.

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