June 5, 2006
The Virginian-Pilot, Hampton Roads, VA

At 75, historian still hits the books in college

"I've been wanting to study history since I got into engineering, but I never thought of it as a career – more of a hobby." PHIL MCMULLAN


HERTFORD – Complaining about your school work load?

        Check Phil McMullan, a man who recently completed research on the link between sassafras and the Lost Colony.

        At North Carolina State University in Raleigh during the 2005-06 school year, he had classes in historiography, the history of writing, history from traditional historic figures and current political correctness.

        He also studied public history, history writing and the Reformation. He studied the Reformation. He studied North American history at Duke University and global history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

        He will receive a master's in history from North Carolina State University. But first, McMullan, 75, has more studying to do.

        Next semester, he will have an independent study course in North Carolina history, and he will start on his thesis about the Lost Colony and its relationship with the post- Tuscarora War Battles with the Mattamuskeet Indians.

        McMullan graduated, class of 1952, from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, later graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with a master's in business administration.

        McMullan spent 21 years working as a senior operations research analysts at the Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park. Then, the Edenton native was ready to return to the Albemarle area, settling in Hertofrd with his wife, Norma, a real estate agent.

        The couple has four adult children, three of whom live in the Triangle area, the other in Nashville, Tenn.

        There was nothing about him that smacked of laid-back retirement.

        "I've been wanting to study history since I got into engineering," he said, "but I never thought of it as a career – more of a hobby."

        His hobby is keeping him almost totally occupied with study.

        "I had to do some history, and I found a book at the Park Service library on Roanoke Island, a book that was written in the 1960's and only recently published by the Family Research Society of Northeastern North Carolina," said McMullan, who has begun working as an historian for The Lost Colony Center for Science and Research.

        The more he reads and researches, the more he is determined to continue working with the people who study the mysterious Lost Colony.

        The 235-page book, "The Five Lost Colonies of Dare," was written by Mary Wood Long, who , from 1954 to 1963, portrayed Queen Elizabeth in "The Lost Colony" outdoor drama.

        The more McMullan reads and researches, the more he is determined to continue working with the people who study the mysterious Lost Colony.

        Mcmullan has made his own contribution, "A Role for Sassafras in the Search For The Lost Colony," a 30-page paper he wrote for his history writing class. In it he explains, "between the 16th and 18th centuries, sassafras was a major export from the Americas to Europe."

        The trees, he wrote, "were believed to have near miraculous healing powers. Although no longer approved for medicinal use, sassafras was once a cure for almost anything."

        McMullan traces the history of the tree, shows how the English settlers became involved with it and explains why "someone with knowledge of a large strand of sassafras trees might try to keep the knowledge secret."

        In 2002, he won swimming medals during the Senior Olympics, gold for the 50-yard breaststroke, silver for the 100-yard breaststroke.

        The 6-footer was also a Main Street Champion in Hertford, an honor given him while he was a board member of the town's Main Street Program.

        McMullan had a heart bypass surgery in 2003, which, of course, slowed him down, but only temporarily. He is a member of the Albemarle Chorale, has performed in many area little theater productions, including one in which he strummed the ukulele.

        His answer, when asked about his philosophy of life, was short and to the point: "Keep moving."


Next semester, Phil McMullan of Hertford will take an Independent study course and will start on his thesis about the Lost Colony.

Return to Articles