DisPatches, Spring 2009
Study Skills tutor writes bio of George Washington Carver
by Bobby Bradford
College of Marin DSPS tutor Peter Burchard has an interesting sideline – he’s the leading authority on George Washington Carver, the groundbreaking African-American inventor and agricultural chemist who rose from slavery to world prominence. Carver, recruited by Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Institute, is known for revolutionizing agricultural practices in the South and discovering hundreds of industrial uses for common plants.
“In 1987,” recalls Burchard, “my late dad, author of the book that was the background for the movie Glory, asked me if I wanted to do an American biography for a series for young adults. I had come across references to George Washington Carver that hinted at much higher dimensions than I had been aware of, so I chose him. The young adult biography never happened, but I’ve been studying and writing on Carver ever since.”
In the course of his research, Burchard has traveled extensively and interviewed all of the authorities on Carver, including about forty people who knew and studied with the great man himself. Burchard has made it his mission to bring the best of his findings to the public.
“After the first eight years or so on this project,” he says, “I realized to my surprise that I was the foremost expert on Carver. Since then, I have been on a History Channel Modern Marvels show, received an Honorary Award of Excellence for my participation in dedicating a USDA headquarters building named for Carver, spoken in many parts of the country, and done consulting for books, videos, and museum exhibits. I produced a small book on Carver in 1998 and have a full biography in draft.”
Burchard, who has a degree in English Literature from Boston University and a teaching credential from Sonoma State, tutors English Composition, Science, Math and some history in the Disabled Students’ Program’s learning lab.
“With my colleague Gordon Hedemark, who oversees the lab and does most of the math tutoring, I tutor students with various learning disabilities, physical disabilities, anyone who qualifies for and seeks our help,” says Burchard. “In the last few of the eight years I’ve been here, Gordy and I have had a gratifying increase in the students’ interest in and recognition of our program, so that now our tutoring schedule is often full by the end of the first week of a semester.”
Carver, too, did extensive work with people with disabilities.
“Some of the more than 300 products Carver made from peanuts were massage oil preparations,” says Burchard. “He was a masseur who worked with infantile paralysis patients and people with many other disabilities. He got positive results that were far beyond what medical practitioners of his day could explain.”
Burchard thinks that Carver’s work is still relevant today.
“George Washington Carver was a far more profound soul than history has recognized so far,” he says. “To take a paragraph from my biographical draft, ‘Those who know George Washington Carver only as the chemist who made hundreds of products out of peanuts have seen only one facet of his gem of a vision. They have missed the I-love-humanity facet, the save-our-soils-or-suffer facet, the expand-outside-of-your-little-circle-of-self facet, the happiness-in-service facet, the nature-is-little-windows-to God facet, the educate-the-creative-mind facet, the zero-waste facet, the beyond-petroleum facet, and many more.’”
The epitaph on the grave of George Washington Carver says, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” Burchard’s two decades of patient work with Carver’s legacy, along with his eight years helping students at College of Marin, suggest that this saying applies to him as well as to his hero.
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