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ASU's "Cowboy Mike" to call it quits in August

Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 6:15 PM
Last updated Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012 3:11 AM
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Those who’ve never met the man recognize him by the big, bellowing laugh and 10-gallon cowboy hat.

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ASU history professor Michael "Cowboy Mike" Searles has spent 20 years at the college, telling the often forgotten story of the black cowboy.   ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES/STAFF
ASU history professor Michael "Cowboy Mike" Searles has spent 20 years at the college, telling the often forgotten story of the black cowboy.

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.”


PROFESSION: Augusta State University assistant professor of history

BORN: Edwardsville, Ill.

AGE: 69

PUBLICATIONS: Co-editor of Buffalo Soldiers in the West: A Black Soldiers Anthology (2007); contributor to Black Cowboys of Texas (2000)

FAMILY: wife, Toni Searles

HOBBIES: history, reading

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Dixieman 02/24/12 - 08:48 pm
He is a great guy and

He is a great guy and inspirational teacher! Good luck in retirement, Mike -- I know you won't slow down a bit!

museofsatie 02/24/12 - 08:54 pm
I took a couple of classes

I took a couple of classes from this man, and he was such a great professor. He's a great man, and I'm sad that future ASU students won't get to learn from him. Have a great retirement, Cowboy Mike!

travelp 02/24/12 - 10:53 pm
I took some of his classes in

I took some of his classes in the 90's and enjoyed them. Good professor. Good luck Cowboy Mike.

my.voice 02/25/12 - 09:36 am
The start of an ASU exodus?

The start of an ASU exodus?

scott-hudson 02/25/12 - 04:19 pm
Cowboy Mike is not just an

Cowboy Mike is not just an educator but a mentor as well. He is one of those professors you remember and keep in touch long after you have graduated. Congrats on your retirement Dr. Searles and I am positive you will put great use of your time outside of the university.

valkrider63 02/26/12 - 10:11 am
I had the pleasure of having

I had the pleasure of having many classes while studying History at ASU during the late 1990s Cowboy Mike always had a smile on his face and appeared to love his job then and I am sure he will miss the college, but I am also sure many future student s will miss his his laugh, insight, and knowledge. Good Luck in retirement!!!

kmfloyd 03/10/12 - 12:40 pm
Had to sign up. I wanted to

Had to sign up. I wanted to wish my favorite uncle a happy retirement. If we are remembered by the people we touch, you will be remembered forever.

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