Those who’ve never met the man recognize him by the big, bellowing laugh and 10-gallon cowboy hat.
The ones who have listened to his Augusta State University lectures know him as the expert on all things Old West.
His name is Michael Searles, but nearly no one calls him that. Like the nameplate on his office door announces, they simply call him Cowboy Mike.
“I don’t even think I know his real first and last name,” said communications sophomore Shanese Nixon, who took a post-Civil War history class from Searles last year.
Searles has spent 20 years at ASU opening young minds to the often forgotten story of the black cowboy. He has toured the country and the world giving lectures on the subject and researching lives of modern-day black ranchers.
He’s created a name with students as a compassionate educator who makes his subject come alive by standing in front of classes dressed in spurs, chaps and one of dozens of his signature cowboy hats.
“I’ve never really had a professor like him,” Nixon said. “He’s actually talking to you and not going by a piece of paper or a PowerPoint.”
In August, after he has turned 70, Searles will retire from teaching – but only because it feels it’s time.
“I tell my students I have not had a bad day at ASU, I have not had a bad semester at ASU, I’ve never woken up and said ‘Oh boy, oh boy, I can’t do it today,’ ” Searles said. “It’s just that you’re supposed to retire by now.”
The fascination with cowboys started when Searles was a boy, watching Westerns on a black-and-white TV in a small city in Illinois with no farms or cattle. His grandmother bought him toy guns that hung from his belt loops.
It wasn’t until he was studying history at Southern Illinois University that he saw his first black man on a ranch in a book called The Adventures of the Negro Cowboys.
Searles went to Howard University for a master’s degree in history and later taught and worked as a community organizer in Washington.
In 1977, he moved to Georgia with his wife, Toni, and taught at public schools and the Georgia Military Academy until he came to ASU in 1992.
While at ASU, Searles conducted about 40 presentations every year to schools and organizations about the life of the black cowboy.
The history is important to understanding the American experience, he said.
“If you see the West as a multiracial, multiethnic experience, then a lot of people can embrace Americanism,” Searles said. “You don’t have to be white to do that.”
His expertise has created a special presence at ASU, making many curious about the man walking around campus in the big-brimmed cowboy hat, said Cliff Gardiner, the assistant dean of the Pamplin College of Arts and Sciences.
“All of us know our field well, but to have somebody that has a unique window into an underappreciated area of history is unique,” Gardiner said. “You won’t find another place, I expect, in the state that has somebody who is half the authority that he is on the buffalo soldier, the African-American cowboy.”
In retirement, Searles doesn’t plan on slowing down. He hopes to continue his lectures across the country and is thinking of writing a book that combines tall tales and chuck wagon cooking recipes.
“I believe in the element of serendipity,” he said. “You never know what life’s going to give you.”