In college, there are often professors who stand out with a teaching style or a personality that sets them apart. In the political science department at the College of Charleston, that professor was Thomas P. Chorlton.
NAME: Thomas Patrick Chorlton
BORN: Feb. 26, 1946
Died: Jan. 5, 2014
COMMUNITY: Folly Beach
OCCUPATION: American history professor with the College of Charleston
WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR: Being a self-proclaimed "world's largest gay vegetarian hymn-singing agnostic" with a passion for teaching political history that was infectious to his students.
He was more than just a teacher. He was an activist. He was an author. He was an inspiration, said those who knew him.
Chorlton died Jan. 5 from leukemia-related complications. He was 67.
According to John Thevos, a junior at the college, Chorlton was one of the most outgoing people he had ever met.
"He could see a potential friend in everybody," he said. "He was more of a mentor than a professor."
Chorlton forged relationships with his students that lasted long after the final exam was over, many said.
At the memorial service, Thevos added, "There was a very, very strong group of 'Tom Alumni,' people that take something from him every semester."
In addition to teaching an introduction to American government and history, he developed courses on the presidency, politics of the American Revolution and contemporary political issues.
In class, Chorlton did more than recite the history of American government from a textbook and he expected his students to do the same.
"Tom's daily quizzes were legendary," said Dr. Lynne Ford, political science professor and associate provost for curriculum and academic administration with the College of Charleston. "They were based entirely on the reading assigned for the day and they provided him with assurance that students knew their facts before engaging in discussion about the issues of the day."
Discussion was a big part of his classes.
"He encouraged opinion," said Thevos. "He was always up for a spirited debate (and) he had a knack for getting students involved. People that wouldn't typically be engaged in a class would be with him."
"He was a great storyteller and truly loved his work," said Dr. Gibbs Knotts, political science department chairman with the College of Charleston. "He was able to blend his own experiences with history and with contemporary examples to make the subject matter come alive for students."
Chorlton was an advocate of young people being a part of the political process and would urge them to get involved.
"His syllabus started with the quote, 'Democracy is a participatory sport,' " said Knotts.
"This embodied his approach to teaching. ... He inspired hundreds of students during his time at the college to learn about the political system and to figure out how they could personally make a difference."
On Feb. 28, the Democratic National Committee met in Washington, D.C., and passed a resolution commemorating the life and career of Chorlton, citing his "lifetime of political activism with extensive involvement in local, state and national politics."
He attended his first Democratic National Convention in 1968 and in 1975 was a staffer for Congressman Melvin Price (D-IL), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
In the 1980s, Chorlton supported the gay rights movement, serving as president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, an LGBT organization, in 1981-82.
He was a founder of the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs in 1982 and served as its executive director until 1987.
In 1988, Chorlton was the first serious openly gay candidate to run for a seat on the D.C. city council, making him a forerunner for subsequent gay council members.
He brought this experience with him to the classroom.
"Perhaps the most important course he developed was LGBT politics," said Ford.
"This is now a regular catalog course although nobody will ever again be able to teach it like Tom did - an amazing combination of scholarship and personal activism.
"Although an academic course," Ford continued, "its existence provided students with an opening to engage with Tom and others about their own identity. Tom embraced his life as an open gay man and by being so incredibly open he gave others permission to be open as well."
"He cared about teaching people about the movement," Thevos said, agreeing that the addition of the LGBT course was Chorlton's greatest accomplishment at C of C.
In 2012, Chorlton completed and self-published his book, "The First American Republic: 1774-1789," a profile of the 14 members of the Continental Congress that served as acting president in the years prior to George Washington being elected.
The book is an example of his "quest for knowledge. He was a meticulous researcher and scholar," said Ford. "I can't imagine another source for so much documented information about the First Republic."
He was also a valued friend and colleague, Ford said. "He died way too young and I miss him."
Reach Liz Foster at 937-5581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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