April 16, 1944 - April 27, 2020 Dr. Philip Matthew Mabe Sr., 76, a beloved professor of history for almost 50 years, died peacefully, from leukemia, Monday, April 27, 2020, at his home, in Johnson City, Tenn.
Mabe’s final days were spent in the quiet company of his loving wife of 51 years, Cassandra, and his two grown children, Cara and Matt, who traveled from New Orleans and Philadelphia to be with him at his bedside. Mabe had been hospitalized for several weeks, unable to receive visitors because of the restrictions due to COVID-19. He was released from the hospital, Thursday, April 23, and delivered into the Lord’s heavenly embrace four days later.
For nearly half a century, Mabe taught history and civics in his adopted state of Louisiana. Most of those years were spent as an associate professor at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, La. History for Mabe was not merely a career. It was a calling and his life’s abiding passion. Mabe was enormously popular among his students and deeply respected by his colleagues. He was probably best known for his encyclopedic knowledge of America’s history, its founding, its system of government, and its wars. Mabe had a gift for making the topics he taught accessible and engaging. His favorite subjects included the framing of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, and World War II.
Mabe’s repertoire of knowledge was deep and broad. He could quote long passages from the Federalist Papers. His doctoral dissertation explored racial ideology in the New Orleans press during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mabe possessed an incisive familiarity with U.S. federal case law, even though he wasn’t a lawyer and had never gone to law school. He could just as effortlessly recite, from memory, all 27 Amendments to the Constitution as he could T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. His favorite parlor trick was to ask for a U.S. president’s name and respond with the first and last year of that president’s term in office. He never once got it wrong, not even on Millard Fillmore.
Throughout his life, Mabe’s personal charisma endeared him to so many. He was funny, folksy, and affectionate. He was a mesmerizing storyteller. Wherever he went Mabe could draw and hold an audience. “Now lemme tell you what,” was how he began many a stemwinder. A superlative command of English, a small-town North Carolina accent he never lost, and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of historical and personal anecdotes, made his tales a joy to listen to, whether in a classroom or at a backyard barbecue. His special gift lay in personalizing his stories so that one felt he was the inheritor of secret wisdom. “Don’t tell anyone,” he might whisper, “You’re never gonna believe this.”
Above all, Mabe was a good man. He was humble, principled, gentle, and kind. He gave generously to charity and to restaurant workers alike. He never passed a beggar by. He never ever took for granted what he had and where he’d come from. Mabe’s life was a constant struggle to rise above the multi-generational scourge of having less, being less. So he paid his meager fortunes forward to men of means lesser still. He did all of this quietly, without expectation of reward or recognition. His favorite Bible verse from Acts puts it best. “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” Mabe knew he was flawed, fallen like us all. But he possessed a strong sense of right and wrong. Honor, integrity, fairness, and dignity were all ideals he strived to live by. Mabe worked hard, too, to inculcate these virtues into his children.
Philip Matthew Mabe was born, April 16, 1944, in Mooresville, the second son of William Matt Mabe and Texie Maud Dunlap. His parents worked on and off in the region’s local textile mills, and were themselves, the descendants of sharecroppers. Simple, hard-working, illiterate, and poor, that was how Mabe described his grandparents; always with a complicated mix of pride, embarrassment, sympathy, and reverence. Mabe loved to talk about his roots. Indeed, he dwelled on the past, fitting for a man who would fall so deeply in love with history. Mabe liked to point out that his parents were each the tenth of fifteen children and that his extended family included 108 first cousins alone.
Mabe and his older brother Darrell, endured no different than most kids in a town in the South in the 1950’s. A good day was pole fishing at the creek or hijinks along the train tracks. More often it was fist fights, back-breaking work, and the soul-crushing miasma of low expectations. Mabe was variously loved, tormented, and protected by Darrell, who was the town tough guy and seven years Mabe’s elder. Sometimes the object of his brother’s rescue, other times the focus of his fury, Mabe just tried to survive it all.
From an early age, Mabe took to books. He would spend long hours at the library reading everything from Robinson Crusoe and Huck Finn to T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. Bringing books home meant bearing the opprobrium of his brother, but he did it anyway. He would read into the night with the wood stove radiant. Sometimes, at breakfast, he would read to his dad, who couldn’t much. Once, when assigned to write and recite a poem for a grade school English class, Mabe received a failing grade for plagiarizing another artist’s work. The poem Mabe had read actually was his own, but the point had been made, “Excellence is suspect, don’t stick your neck out.” Years later, Mabe’s father lost his patience at his talk of college. It was the cotton mill for their lot, forever and always. End of discussion.
Mabe disagreed. He did go to college, and he put himself through. After graduation from Mooresville High School in 1962, Mabe enrolled in Gardner–Webb Junior College in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He earned an associate of arts degree there in 1964 before matriculating to High Point College, where he finished in 1966 with a bachelor of arts in history. In 1968, he earned a masters degree in history from Appalachian State University in Boone and immediately took his first full-time job teaching history at Shenandoah College in Winchester, Va.
It was in Boone that Mabe met the woman he would go on to marry. Cassandra Lee Pritchett, a pretty, young co-ed studying French and Spanish, spotted Mabe at a party. She was immediately taken in. Mabe was a harder case. For starters, he didn’t dance, but that didn’t bother his future wife. Mabe was earnest, disarming, and fascinating. He told her that night about his interest in attending seminary, and he was forthright about his ambivalence toward the war in Vietnam. In the end, he decided not to sign up for either.
The two eloped in 1969 and were married by a justice of the peace in South Carolina. Their only wedding gift, a bottle of champagne from a long, forgotten friend, that the young couple turned into a makeshift candelabra. That bottle today and its gnarly melted wax are witness to one of the great love stories of our time.
After their wedding, the Mabes went crazy. They left behind family, friends, and opportunity in the Carolinas. They relocated to Lafayette, La., cajun country, where Mabe began a doctoral program at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, while his bride taught French at a nearby high school. For the second time in two years, Mabe fell in love. French Louisiana was the perfect setting for his personality to thrive. A culture where the music, the food, the language, the bonhomie were currency, and in which the Mabes, desperately poor, at last felt rich.
In 1972, the pair moved to New Orleans, that most alluring of America’s great cities. There they would establish their careers, raise their children, and make their home for the next five decades. Mabe’s wife would receive her Ph.D. at Tulane and go on to teach French language, literature, and culture at Loyola University next door. Meanwhile, Mabe, now Dr. Mabe, an honorific, he blushed at—took a teaching post in 1978 at Our Lady of Holy Cross College. Throughout the 1970s, the Mabes bounced from one apartment to another in uptown New Orleans, expanding their network of friends, reveling in the party scene, and becoming ever more seduced by the Carnival spirit of the Big Easy. They never wanted to leave.
In 1978, they bought their first house, a quaint post-war bungalow in a manicured working class neighborhood in Jefferson Parish, just on the outskirts of the city. Their first child, Philip Jr., “Matt”, was born in 1980, followed shortly by a daughter, Cara, in 1983. Mabe was caring and playful with these children he’d had late. He enjoyed watching from the porch as they ran under the lawn sprinkler or swung merrily from a rope in the Sycamore out back or rode their bikes barefoot among the green lawns, rose bushes, and Japanese plum trees that filled the neighborhood. Mabe was fond of calling his children by nicknames like “Sashew” and “Bun,” monikers he continued to use until the end of his life. Probably because they kept him feeling young, he was a great dad.
In 1987, Mabe took a new job at Delgado Community College, where he would teach history and government until his retirement in 2014. Mabe became an indelible fixture at Delgado, earning accolades and adoration over the years from thousands of students, who saw Mabe not just as a teacher but a kind of father figure. He always made time for his students, especially those who were struggling at school or at home. Occasionally, Mabe would float a little money to those most hard up. Sometimes the loans were repaid. Sometimes not. Mabe chaired the Humanities Department at Delgado for a few years in the mid-90s, but the role wasn’t for him. Mabe never liked administration or officialdom. He just wanted to teach.
In 1990, Mabe moved the family a few miles further up the Mississippi to River Ridge, a shady New Orleans suburb notable for its azaleas, live oaks, and Spanish moss. He’d spotted the house a few months earlier on a leisurely drive through the area. “That’s the house I want,” Mabe said wistfully to no one in particular. The very idea of owning this indistinct little rancher on a pretty square plot of land was something of the culmination of a lifelong dream. Mabe would spend his middle and twilight years in this house. He loved to lie on the couch in the front room next to a picture window, facing the oaks his wife and children had planted when the trees were yet seedlings, always a stack of fresh library books on the coffee table nearby. Mabe never lost his passion for reading about America’s founding, its forgotten battles, and its heroes.
In 2001, the Mabes broke ground on a second home in Johnson City, Tenn. Cassandra’s parents built the house hoping the Mabes would retire there some day. It worked. As time went on, they spent more and longer periods there in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. When the Mabes retired in the mid-2010s, it effectively became their primary home. On cool nights, Mabe liked to sit in a rocking chair on his deck that overlooked a wooded spur behind the property. The Indian Ridge, he called it. Occasionally deer would pass through whilst Mabe carried on about politics or about the state of the American Republic he loved so much or about his grandchildren, who he loved most of all.
Mabe’s children had long ago grown up, left home, and gone on to forge their own adventures. Mabe’s son, Matt, graduated from West Point and served several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army officer. He has a nice life outside Philadelphia with his wife and three daughters. Mabe’s daughter, Cara, stayed in New Orleans, becoming an accomplished attorney. She lives there now with her husband and two year old son. For many years and until the end of his life, Mabe and his daughter continued to forge their special father-daughter bond through daily phone check-ins. Those will be missed.
Mabe’s son recalls a conversation he once had with his dad as a teenager. Mabe said, “If you remember nothing else I taught you, remember this: One, life isn’t fair. Two, nobody has the answer. And three, if you have one true friend in life, you’re lucky.” By that last measure, Mabe appears to have completed his brilliant life among the luckiest and happiest men in the world.
The Mabe family will hold a private service. Committal and Interment will be held in Monte Vista Memorial Park. Condolences and memories may be shared with the Mabe family by visiting www.montevistafunerals.com
Arrangements especially for Dr. Philip Matthew Mabe, Sr. and his family have been made through Monte Vista Funeral Home & Memorial Park, 1900 E. Oakland Avenue, Johnson City, TN; 423-282-2631.