The fabric of her life|Love of history, love of law have guided Swamp native

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 12, 2008

It’s about a thousand miles from Jamestown, Va., to Campbell’s Swamp in Warren County.

Or 400 years.

Linda Monk has traveled it both ways on the pages of history. She grew up on Jeff Davis Road, on the edge of Campbell’s Swamp, and now lives a mile from George Washington’s front door at Mount Vernon. In fact, her home is on what was once the first president’s pig farm beside the Potomac River. Virginia has been her home for over 24 years, longer than she lived in Mississippi.

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She discovered family history “late in life. My grandmother could give you detailed lineages of all our relatives. I just never was interested.” That was before she discovered Edmud T. Chisman, or Cheesman, an ancestor who arrived in Jamestown in 1622 — which makes her eligible for the prestigious First Families of Virginia.

Her ancestry wasn’t the reason, but it was certainly fitting, that she would be on the board of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation which helped plan the celebration of the founding of the English colony, an event that included Queen Elizabeth.

Linda was only a few yards from her, whom she described as “looking very queenly, not saying a word — I found out that queens don’t have to say anything, they just have to be there — wearing a lovely turquoise outfit and matching hat.”

Linda was appointed to the Foundation board by Virginia Gov. Tim Kane, a classmate from Harvard Law School. The board is an educational organization established by the Commonwealth of Virginia and sponsors living history museum programs.

In a way, Linda said, ancestry was “all a hoot to me” because she grew up in an era when genealogy was done by ladies “who wanted to prove that they were better than I was. There was a lot of snobbery about it. It was assumed that if you came from people who were sharecroppers or people who didn’t have an education, then there wasn’t any history about you — and it turns out that is not true.”

Linda is the daughter of the late William Monk. Her mother, Betty Ruth Smith Monk, grew up at Blue Hill in Jefferson County but still lives in the home on Jeff Davis Road. Linda’s early education was at a local Seventh-Day Adventist school, then at Warrenton and Warren Central where “my most formative teacher was Gerald Hasselman. It was really his 8th-grade American History class where I got turned on.”

He would tease her, she said, “and always called me Linda Louise, which I hated, and he would say, ‘Linda Louise, were the dinosaurs out in Campbell’s Swamp when you got up this morning?’ Come to find out, one of those funny little things in history, my great-grandfather lived in Campbell’s Swamp and all of his daughters had the middle name Louise. Those are the things that make history so rich, all the little details. You have to have a taste for them.”

In high school, she was chairman of the mock political convention, “a wonderful experience of getting to apply what they now call experimental learning.”

It wasn’t the distant past that most interested her as much as what is happening now. Her interest in current events, especially in the legal system, goes back to high school when she was a member of Gil Martin’s Explorer Scouts, “the Legal Beagles,” and they held a mock trial.

From Warren Central she went to Ole Miss in 1976 on a Carrier scholarship, which is awarded to the state’s most outstanding students, and from there she went to Harvard Law School, where she graduated in 1983.

She was a rabble rouser, she said, “because my favorite teachers at Ole Miss were not getting tenure, and we had recently started an outstanding teacher award, and it seemed to be the curse of death because for several years running the outstanding teacher was denied tenure that same year, so we had a little student rebellion, and I played a little part in that.”

The demonstration brought to the public’s attention an issue that became national, “which is the students are the ones paying the tuition and the experiences from their teachers should count and should be relevant when teachers are being evaluated. After that there has been a whole movement about training college professors to actually be good teachers.”

Her choice of a career in the legal field was a natural one, she said, because there were two main options, medicine or law, “and since I hated the sight of blood but liked arguing with my daddy, that seemed a good choice.”

Even as a youth, she said, she was very ambitious and thought she wanted to be on the Supreme Court, “but now I think it’s one of the most boring jobs. It’s amazing how your favorite ambitions can be totally unrelated to what your true gifts are in life. It took a while to figure that out.”

What excites her in history, in daily life, is the Constitution, “the highest form of law, when you’re talking about the fundamental values of our society and how the law reflects those.” She decided she didn’t want to be a practicing attorney because “much of your professional life is going to be arguing rules of civil procedure, which are arcane and arbitrary to me in a lot of ways. Sitting in an office and doing motion practice is just my idea of torture. Once I got out of law school I quickly discovered I preferred writing for the court of public opinion, and that is where my real love got going.”

Linda likes “taking something that is very complicated and translating it for the lay audience, but not dumbing it down, just translating it — and that is exciting to me. The citizen is the ultimate source of constitutional power, That could sum up my professional life.”

She’s a writer, an author, does a lot of teacher training and public speaking, writes op-ed pieces and books on the Constitution and American history. She has authored three books — one of American history as seen through the eyes and told from the views of ordinary people; another, “The Words We Live By,” is an annotated guide to the Constitution; and another, on the Bill of Rights, won the Silver Gavel Award, the American Bar Association’s highest honor.

“That’s when I finally felt vindicated” for following a different path from other Harvard Law School graduates in not practicing law. “It was a hard path, but there comes a time in your life when you have to stop doing what everybody expects you to do, and do what you want to do,” she said, adding that “writing isn’t an easy path for anybody,” and education is “where I think I found my niche, and I love it.”

A lot of her work is with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in training teachers “who are in it for the love of learning, not for the money.”

She’s also been involved in museum work not only at Jamestown, but also at the Freedom Museum in Chicago, sponsored by the McCormick Foundation, where she was lead curator.

“The best thing I ever did for my career was to be born in Mississippi,” she said, “because, particulary in Washington, there are many outstanding Mississippians who have achieved great prominence. Once you mention that you’re from Mississippi they’re in line to help you.” The reason, she says is not necessarily because you’re from a small state but, “It’s because their mama’s second cousin will find out and they’ll get blessed out when they get back home if they didn’t help you. We have our ways and our connections. In Washington we’re called the Mississippi Mafia.”

She met her husband, Steve Cook — “He’s my Connecticutt Yankee” — on Valentine’s Day years ago. He’s a market analyst, retired from the Pentagon, and Linda tells people, “He made sure their tax dollars got spent the way Congress said.  Now, that’s not always what we the people want, but that’s what the law says, and he made sure the law got enforced in terms of the budget.”

Linda has found that her present query into her past is that her family story, like that of many others, is in reality the story of America. Her discovery that one of her ancestors served in the House of Burgesses was no more important than to find that her great-grandfather, Lige Monk, lived in Campbell’s Swamp with a large family in a house built from sawmill slabs, sold fish caught in the Big Black River, “and now some of his grandsons, and granddaughters are back living on that land, that they had no idea he had owned when they purchased it.”

“There is this feeling that there is some kind of beckoning from your ancestor. I often tell people don’t be surprised when you go searching for your ancestors that they find you first,” she said. “I very much felt that Lige had come looking for me, and now all this detail I have about how he lived his life, and the ways he raised his children, that is a richness to the fabric of my life, that I didn’t have before.”

For Linda Monk, it has been an exciting trip in both miles and years from Jamestown to Campbell’s Swamp and back to Virginia — and now back home again.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.