Know Your Neighbor: Katy McWhirter

It’s not every day you run across a “historian for hire.” Katy McWhirter’s one, though, and she’s currently on deadline, writing the history of the Iroquois Steeplechase.
     “The event is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year,” she says. “It has a really interesting history, pulling in details of steeplechasing and the history of Middle Tennessee. It goes a lot farther back than the first event in 1941. Middle Tennessee was actually a really rich area for horse racing — it goes back to Andrew Jackson.” She stirs her coffee at Bongo East on this early-spring morning, the interest clear in her eyes. “It’s been a very quick turnaround. I’ve had a month to research and write the book. I signed the contract on March 2, finished the last chapter last night, and it has to go to the printers on April 8.”
     McWhirter’s credits include an oral history of Music Row, which is kept at the main branch of the Nashville Public Library downtown; and last summer, she did a project with the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
     “I did the script for a huge three-day event called Nashville Salutes,” she recalls. “Twenty-five Medal of Honor recipients had come into town, and the culminating event was a scripted awards show-type gala in which they wanted to marry Nashville history to military conflict history, to show how the city was about to continue growing and thriving while members of the military were out fighting. So I got to research Nashville for about three months and write this script.
     “The stories that come out of Nashville are just mesmerizing,” she continues. “And it makes you very appreciative for all that’s here, but also as a historian, very aware of how much history is being taken away from us every day, and how many stories are being demolished. Trying to talk about the factory that produced the shoes Gen. MacArthur was wearing when he accepted the Japanese surrender, you now have to say, ‘Well it used to be here, but they tore it down.’ ”
     A Mississippi native, McWhirter’s passion for history was piqued as a student at Belmont University. Dissatisfied with the office work she had to find after school, she sought to, essentially, create her own job. “As it goes when you start something like this, you have a bunch of random clients at first, writing blog articles about travel destinations and environmental sustainability and all sorts of different things,” she explains. “Then, just as I was about to question my decision, I got my first long-term client.”
     What with the Condo Monster eating structure after structure, business is good right now. People want to remember. “Nashville has gone through so many iterations and seen so many changes,“ McWhirter says. “Everyone is interested in historical preservation and making sure stories are told and kept, so I think it’s a very exciting time to be a historian in Nashville — whether it’s individuals wanting to tell their family story, or events like the Iroquois wanting to make sure their history is told, [or] corporate histories; there are so many stories that people want to make sure get told right now. And so I think that’s going to keep me busy.”
     McWhirter writes every day. The “what do you do on your day off ” question prompts laughter. “I don’t have days off,” she says, “I have pockets of time. I don’t know how to delineate between Monday through Friday, and Saturday-Sunday. It all runs together for me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
     Future plans would be more of the same, only better. “I think, probably in five years, I’d like to have some writers I work with and contract things out to, like education pieces, and I think I want to focus on the history myself. I think that’s something I will always want to keep close. I’ve had so many people say, ‘Oh, you should hire some college students, get them to do some research, have them go down to the library,’ and I say, ‘No!’ I want to sit in the dusty archives and I want to hold each piece of newspaper from the 1940s. That’s the stuff that I live for.”