Rand Dotson '90 recently published book titled Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South
By Laura Scuffins '09
Rand Dotson '90 is not your typical historian. Before researching the history of Roanoke, he was rocking out with his punk band, Thee Wanderers, going on tour throughout the east coast and recording albums over the course of 10 years.
"It all started with some friends I had when I went to Salem High School," Dotson says, with a laugh. "No one knew how to play an instrument, and all we wanted was to get into the school's talent show. I never thought that we would do as well as we did."
Dotson's experience with Thee Wanderers taught him the importance of dedication and hard work. His time with the band eventually led to his success in graduate school at Virginia Tech, where he studied history, and encouraged him to continue his studies at Louisiana State University, where he ultimately wrote the only scholarly book available in bookstores about Roanoke's history after the Civil War. The recently published book is titled Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South.
Dotson also began working with Louisiana State University Press as the history editor and is now the acquisitions editor for history and Southern Studies. His book, however, was published in October by The University of Tennessee Press in Knoxville. It is the only scholarly account available of what the city was like during the industrial age and the struggles Roanoke faced in the early years of establishment.
"I like to research communities and create the micro history of places," says Dotson. "No one covered Roanoke, and I thought it fit perfectly. I feel that it was the model city for the New South. It is amazing how much of an industrial city Roanoke was for being in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains."
The most challenging part of Dotson's studies was that there was too much information to collect, and it was hard for him to decide what was important to highlight. All of the information he found has significance about the way Roanoke operated in the past and how it functions today.
Dotson was amazed at the infrastructure problems the city initially faced, relating Roanoke to a Wild West town mostly because the town could not keep up with the growing population.
"I guess the most surprising thing I found in my research was how dysfunctional Roanoke was initially. There was conflict between Northerners who came into the city and local Southerners."
Before Dotson published his book, he was guiding authors, like himself, through the publishing experience. Because of his work with LSU, he quickly learned the business of publishing, and this knowledge helped him as he published his own book with the University of Tennessee. Not only does Dotson work with LSU, but he also received his Ph.D. in U.S. history from the university in 2003.
"Working at LSU helped me as an author," says Dotson. "I can now see the process from both sides, and I have a new respect for publishing. It also eases other authors I help because they know that I have personally gone through the process and understand how difficult it can be."
It was not surprising that Dotson did not submit his manuscript to LSU, which caters more to books written about Deep South issues. Because he wrote about Virginia, he ventured to UT since it focused more on Appalachian tradition and surrounding areas.
"Southern history is what LSU specializes in, but Tennessee focuses more on my topic of interest and will ultimately do more for me when selling the book," he says. "Moreover, since I am the history acquisitions editor at LSU, there would have been a fairly significant conflict of interest."
Dotson says he is humbled by being the only person to write a scholarly account of Roanoke and he found that was a great fit for him, even if he did spend eight years researching the growing city.
"Writing this put me in a unique group of people," says Dotson, with a laugh. "I guess I am the world's foremost authority on this subject, but I don't know if it will affect me much. I am done writing about Roanoke, and I am thinking about other southern history topics to focus on."
Dotson has a long history with Roanoke, being an alumnus of both Salem High School and Roanoke College. His parents, who are Roanoke College alums Paul and Carol Dotson '64 '64, raised Dotson in Salem and prepared him for success.
"The education I got at Roanoke was the base," says Dotson. "It prepared me for grad school, and I learned how to write, think and argue, which is all I needed in graduate school."
During his freshman year, Dotson took an introductory course by history professor Dr. John Selby and realized the importance of the past and that it is much more than just names and dates.
"John Selby's history class made me realize that history is a series of arguments and that the past is contentious," says Dotson. "I had no idea I was going to pursue history, and after taking Selby's class I knew."
Dotson will be in Roanoke before the holidays and signing copies of his book on Saturday, Dec. 22, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Ram's Head Book Shop at the Towers Shopping Center (2137 Colonial Ave. S.W., Roanoke).
Copies of his book also are available through the Roanoke College Bookstore for $45.50. For information, contact Philip Atkins, assistant bookstore manager, at 540-375-2317 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.