How I Got Here: Dr. Jody Sowell
Saint Louis University alumnus Dr. Jody Sowell (Grad A&S '11) is the president of the Missouri Historical Society.
Sowell is born in Memphis, Tennessee. He moves to Arkansas in third grade but returns to Memphis during high school.
He enrolls at Southern Methodist University.
“The first thing I wanted to be as a kid was a preacher. Then I wanted to go into advertising, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I got on the journalism career path.”
While in college, Sowell begins working at The Dallas Morning News.
“I started by writing obituaries — some of the most interesting people I ever met; they just happened to be dead.”
Also that year, he meets his wife, Shannon, and they get engaged. They wed two years later.
Sowell moves to Columbia, Missouri, to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He starts teaching and becomes an editor at the Columbia Missourian, which is produced by student reporters and photographers with faculty editors.
He completes his master’s degree.
“We had planned on moving on after graduation, but I had fallen in love with teaching and editing at the Missourian, so we stayed.”
Sowell’s daughter Savannah is born and becomes a frequent newsroom visitor.
Hoping to continue on an academic career path, Sowell and his family move to St. Louis, and he begins a doctorate in American studies at Saint Louis University.
“I was attracted to SLU American studies because of its focus on urban and community history.”
Sowell’s second daughter, Vienna, is born. He also begins adjunct teaching at SLU, as well as at Fontbonne University and Washington University in St. Louis. He still teaches at SLU as often as his schedule allows.
“I get a lot of energy from teaching. I get recharged by talking to students about their views.”
He receives a contract job conducting oral histories for the exhibit “Flight City” at the Missouri History Museum.
“My family had fallen in love with St. Louis, and we knew this was where we wanted to raise the girls. We also knew that the job would slow my progress on the doctorate, but we decided I should take the job in case it would lead to other things.”
He graduates from SLU.
“The way that I look at cities, place and history mostly comes from my work in American studies at SLU. That program helped me think about cities in layers — you’re not just thinking about a place as a population, a grid on a map or architecture. You’re also thinking about the arts, culture and public places that make a place so special. In my work, I’m trying to give people a thick description of St. Louis from all of these different layers and perspectives.”
Working full-time as a public historian at the Missouri Historical Society, he creates the “Our Olympics” exhibit about the first Olympics held in the United States.
Now director of exhibitions and research at MHS, he leads the team that creates “250 in 250,” an exhibit that commemorates the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis through the stories of 50 people, 50 places, 50 objects, 50 images and 50 moments.
“This exhibit ushered in a series of attendance gains the likes of which we had never seen at MHS.”
Under his leadership, the museum opens eight of its 10 most-visited exhibits. These include “#1 in Civil Rights,” “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis” and “Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis.”
He oversees the museum’s efforts during the pandemic, leading to the “Uplifting STL” social media series and “St. Louis Strong” video. The MHS team wins the Silver Lining Award from the Association of Midwest Museums.
“It was recognition that people are looking to use the past to better plan the future, to get through difficult times.”
Sowell makes his debut as host of the “STL History Minutes,” informational commercials that air on KMOV-TV during CBS Sunday Morning.
“The reaction has been overwhelming. I did not realize that many people watched Sunday morning television. I now have strangers coming up to me all the time who say, ‘Hey, you’re the history guy!’”
He is named president of the Missouri Historical Society and is committed to telling more stories that can give visitors — in person or online — a better understanding of American history through the lens of St. Louis.
“We oftentimes ask people to share their own memories, which helps them realize that they’re part of history. History is not something that happened to other people. History is what happened to you and your family. And it’s what we’re living through today.”
Universitas, the award-winning alumni magazine of Saint Louis University, is distributed to SLU alumni, parents and benefactors around the world. The magazine includes campus news, feature stories, alumni profiles and class notes, and has a circulation of 132,265.