by Mariah Parker, Echo Online Staff Writer
It all started with a voice message. The caller was a fact-checker from “NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” a show that follows celebrities as they investigate their genealogies and learn their ties to American history. The fact-checker was looking into German migration in colonial America and had a few questions that only an expert could answer.
The expert was none other than Philip Otterness, chair of the political science and history department at Warren Wilson. Otterness’s book on German migration to colonial American caught the eye of the NBC’s primary researchers. Otterness faxed copies of the documents they were interested in. In December, he flew to New York City to participate in a live filming.
“It’s still bizarre to me,” Otterness said. “I went from answering a phone message to sitting next to a celebrity entertainer. I flew to New York, a driver picked me up, we went over blocking like a real television set. The sound technician hooked me up with a microphone. There were lights all around me. Suddenly, I was in the middle of it all.”
Conferences and lecture halls must have prepared Otterness for his on-screen debut; the professor swears he wasn’t nervous, even when face-to-face with the star of this week’s episode, country icon Tim McGraw.
“Mr. McGraw was really genuine. I found out he had shot a movie in the town where I grew up, and had been to my high school,” Otterness said. “He also told me that daughters used to watch the TV mini-series on John Adams, and I thought it was cool that they were really interested in colonial history.”
Otterness took part in the filming during his semester sabbatical from Warren Wilson. This semester, he has returned to teach history and political science, where he also uses genealogy to help students explore their own histories.
“For a term paper, I’ve had students pick an ancestor to write about and use their personal story to tell a little bit of American history,” Otterness said. “Students came up with the most fascinating things. They sensed of how history touches their lives.”
Otterness hopes that his contribution to the show will touch the lives of audiences in the same way.
“That’s what I like about this program—when people watch it, they start to wonder how their own stories might tie into the broader American story,” Otterness said. “If it gets people interested in history, it’s fine with me.”
The show airs this Friday at 8/7 central on NBC.