Meeting Douglas Brinkley often results in a discussion about a book. A voracious reader and prolific author, Brinkley often can be found at academic conferences and public book festivals, crawling through publisher displays in search of new discoveries.

I remember first meeting him at a 1997 academic conference for historians during a discussion about a new book I was promoting at the time, Jimmy Carter, American Moralist. It was the first biography of Carter published since he left office, and in that conversation, I learned about Brinkley’s keen interest in breadth of Carter and his wife Rosalynn’s careers in and out of politics – from far before to well after his time as president. I shared stories about my father and his involvement with Yellow Dog Democratic politics in Georgia and what that meant for me: stuffing campaign mailers and walking door-to-door at age 8 for a young Carter as he sought the Georgia governorship.

Brinkley laughed but held back the most important connection we would make.

Douglas Brinkley
Douglas Brinkley Credit: Courtesy

Months later, I ran into him again at a different conference. We resumed our discussion as he told me what he thought of the Carter biography, and the talk turned to a newly published book on the Gullah culture that dotted the Georgia coast. Commenting on the fact that we always seemed to discuss books about Georgia, I discovered that Brinkley was a native of Atlanta, like myself. We swapped a few shared reflections on modern-day Atlanta, but the connection seemed loose at best.

Again, some months later, Brinkley inquired about the 1950 masterpiece memoir The Dog Star by Atlanta-born New Yorker Donald Windham, then a spry 78 years old. I had become pretty passionate about my role in facilitating a rediscovery of Windham’s importance as an author and had just published a new edition of this memoir set in Depression-era Atlanta on and off the famed Midtown Atlanta that had marked my early adult years. Brinkley and I shared stories about long-gone landmark buildings in a city growing too fast to remember its own past. He grabbed a copy of the new book and graced us with a review of it for National Public Radio.

It was then that I discovered that Brinkley and I were the same age and had actually grown up not far at all from each other in a bustling 1960s-70s Atlanta. Indeed, it seemed likely we would have been at some of the same childhood birthday parties but did not know one another.

Brinkley’s stellar career as an academic and public historian has been marked by numerous bestselling books on American presidents, along with an eclectic yet effective mix of other interests. Today he serves as a presidential historian for CNN and can regularly be seen on air helping to bring into some focus the sometimes bizarre events that mark today’s presidential politics.

He has a decided interest in natural history, and some years ago he turned his keen eye on the Roosevelts and the formation of our much-loved national park system. A pair of New York Times bestselling books on Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively, benchmark the origins of American public lands. Today Brinkley serves as an advisor for the National Park Service, a vital organization that has just celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Brinkley is the embodiment of the cliche “How does he do it?” A prolific author, passionate Rice University professor, reliable media authority, celebrated public historian, and committed citizen, he indefatigably travels the country speaking to audiences in an attempt to help us connect the dots that tell the story of American politics and public policy regarding our natural environment.

Tonight at Trinity University‘s Laurie Auditorium, Brinkley will bring us the story of how the national park system came to be. It is a story ripe with keen lessons for us today, as we collectively grapple with issues relating to sustainability and expansion of our parks. The lecture will be followed by a discussion with Laura Huffman, director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, in which he will explore questions about the future of our national parks and public lands in an age of political and other challenges.

The 7 p.m. event is sponsored by Trinity University Press and is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow.

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Thomas Payton

Tom Payton is director for Trinity University Press where he acquires books in architecture and urban planning, in addition to other duties. He hails from Atlanta, but is proud to call San Antonio home.