Murphy Branch Library closed May 21-22 for maintenance

Theodore Baehr, Jr. retires after 46 years at the McClung Historical Collection

Theodore Baehr, Jr. retired from the Knox County Public Library’s Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection in the East Tennessee History Center on May 1st. Through his record-setting 46 years with the Collection, Ted, along with his trademark white shirt and suspenders, became well known to students, teachers, genealogists and other history-minded individuals in Knoxville, East Tennessee, and beyond.

Born on January 1, 1940, Ted spent his first thirteen years in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, a working-class community where his mother’s family had deep roots. Theodore Baehr, Sr. was a German immigrant who moved to the United States in 1926 and made his way to Philadelphia via New York City, Missouri, and Detroit. Ted’s mother, Millimento Ketchum “Millie” Dryden Baehr, was a native of the Kensington neighborhood had been named in honor of her godmother Millimento Waldron Ketchum, a Philadelphia socialite and progressive reformer whose community Settlement House had earned her the nickname “The Angel of Kensington.”

Ted’s first years were spent amidst the backdrop of World War II. His father and grandfather were deemed too old for active military service, but his mother and grandmother performed essential work during the war years. Millie was employed in the defense division of Philadelphia’s Edward G. Budd Company, which built airplanes for the U.S. military, while grandmother Agnes Graham Dryden described her work as “Bell Inspector, U.S. Government.”

Craving a return to the small-town life of his youth, Theodore, Sr. moved his family to the village of Esperance in upstate New York during 1953, which proved to be a sea change for a city kid like Ted. Located at least five miles from the nearest “town” of approximately one thousand people, the farmhouse the Baehrs bought initially had no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Ted attended high school at Schoharie, New York and later Mohawk Valley Technical College at Utica, where he majored in electrical engineering, but discovered a love for the social sciences that would last a lifetime. 

Following graduation in 1959, Ted joined the United States Air Force. After initial training in Colorado, Ted spent the entirety of his active-duty military career stationed at USAF Paine Field/Snohomish County Airport, just outside Seattle, Washington. About that career, Ted merely points out that no Communists successfully invaded the Pacific Northwest from the air during his watch. At the end of his term of service, Ted headed to Idaho, where the Air National Guard was looking for people with a “very specific set of airplane knowledge and skills” that he happened to possess. While there, Ted studied at Boise State College, then completed a masters’ degree in social science at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

Upon graduating from the University of Idaho, Ted briefly lived with his parents back in Esperance and worked for a detective agency based out of Amsterdam, New York. Ted reports that detective work can be “a scary job…if you do it right.” The majority of his time with the agency was spent undercover, particularly in an operation designed to infiltrate a ring of grocery store thieves.

By the end of that summer Ted was heading to Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee, where he would pursue a doctorate in history under Dr. Leroy Graff. During his early years in Knoxville, Ted worked as a teaching assistant for Dr. Bruce Wheeler at UTK, then spent “a semester or two” at Walters State’s Blount County campus, teaching history classes to a group of non-traditional students, “almost exclusively law enforcement officers”, who were being required to seek higher education at that time. 

At UT, Ted’s desired area of study was the Jacksonian period, and within that period, his particular focus was to be on John Eaton, who served as a United States Senator from Tennessee (1818-1829), Secretary of War for President Andrew Jackson (1829-1831) and Territorial Governor of Florida (1834-1836). Anyone who knows Ted well will know that his primary interest soon shifted from Eaton himself to Mrs. Eaton (Peggy O’Neill Timberlake) and “The Petticoat Affair,” which erupted during Jackson’s first term in office, stemming from gossip besmirching Peggy Eaton’s personal life and the other Cabinet wives’ decision to snub her socially. The controversy led to various challenges, a duel, chaos in the Cabinet as well as across District of Columbia social life, ultimately leading to the resignation of all Jackson’s cabinet members save one. Like Andrew Jackson himself, Ted falls squarely into the camp of Peggy Eaton’s defenders.

In 1977, Ted became a part time page at the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, which was then occupying the third floor of Lawson McGhee Library on Church Avenue. Following the Collection’s 1982 move to the third floor of the old federal Custom House, now rebranded as the East Tennessee History Center, Ted was hired as an assistant reference librarian. Ted saw many changes to the building over the last four and a half decades, and assisted thousands of patrons from all around the world. We will miss having access to Ted's vast knowledge of the Collection, as well as the "Ted Talks" in which he expounded on matters historical and otherwise.


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