Monday, November 16, 2015

The Rest of Tom Osborne's "Currens Story"

Legendary former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne has long promoted the importance of mentoring. In 1991 he and his wife Nancy launched the TeamMates Mentoring Program, aiming to inspire youth to reach their potential by matching them up with an adult mentor.

Part of Osborne's motivation is personal. As he has often explained, his grandfather, Thomas C. Osborne, grew up on a farm in western Nebraska in the late 1880s/1890s. Thomas's home life was somewhat dysfunctional because his father was an alcoholic. But a traveling preacher named Currens took an interest in Thomas. Currens encouraged him to go to college -- something that was exceedingly rare in the nineteenth century -- and to become a preacher. Thomas did just that, enrolling at Hastings College, captaining the football team, and eventually earning his Presbyterian ordination. "I'm quite certain that if it wasn't for this guy named Currens who was a mentor to my grandfather," Tom Osborne explains, "that my father wouldn't have had the life he had, [and] I would not have had the life I've had."

But who was this "Currens" character in the first place? I have not seen Osborne or anyone else provide many details beyond his last name and occupation. So I decided to see if I could piece together some details about the man who, by Osborne's account at least, unknowingly altered the history of Nebraska football more than a century ago.

From History of Western Nebraska
and its People
I suppose we can start with his name: James B. Currens. Currens was born in Kentucky around 1842. A nineteen-year-old living in a border state when the Civil War broke out, it is unclear if Currens fought for the North or South (or at all) during that conflict. But we do know that he married a woman from Kentucky named Susan, and that he settled in Mattoon, Illinois, sometime after the war. We also know that in 1877 he moved to Chicago to enroll in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (renamed McCormick Theological Seminary in the 1880s). After receiving his D.D. from the school in 1879, Currens headed west for the plains, leaving Susan behind with friends in Illinois while he tried to establish himself in the new town of Parker (population: 113), in southeast Dakota Territory.

Currens spent his first summer in Parker building an eighteen-by-twenty-foot house, made of boards and paper. He also tried to establish connections with "widely-scattered Christians" in the area, but the work was hard and discouraging. "Covetousness, Sabbath-breaking, and intemperance are here before us, and meet us on every hand, undisguised, bold, and defiant," he wrote. The settlers were so busy building their homes and tending to their farms that Currens found it nearly impossible to "induce them to stop and think of religion." But Currens soldiered on, laboring in sparsely populated McCook and Turner counties for the next six years. One settler from the time recalled that Currens pastored seven churches and routinely preached in three different towns every Sunday. By 1883 Currens was reuinited with Susan, and the two earned reputations as local champions of the temperance cause.