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story.lead_photo.caption E. Philip Trapp

In his 95 years on Earth, E. Philip Trapp, University of Arkansas professor emeritus of clinical psychology, has seen a few things.

As a child, he marveled the first time a light bulb illuminated his home with the flip of a switch by his father. He watched his hard-working mother's life completely change with the invention of the iron, the electric stove and indoor plumbing. He stood on the shore and saw the flag go up after the Battle of Iwo Jima and watched as Allied forces took Okinawa. He gazed across the acrid, desolate expanse of land at Hiroshima. He spent 40 years helping to build the clinical psychology department at the University of Arkansas, where he stood against the Arkansas state legislature as they attempted to stifle academic freedom and fought the University's Board of Trustees when they sought to prevent the desegregation of the Razorbacks.

Read the book

“I wish everyone could listen to him talk about World War II — and war in general. He writes of this in his memoirs — often dispassionately — but always with purpose to shine a clear, unvarnished light on war’s realities.” — Barbara Shadden

Memoirs of a World War I Baby Boomer is published in paperback by Outskirts Press and can be purchased directly through the Outskirts Press Bookstore ( The book is also available through Amazon, and the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook e-book versions can also be purchased online for $4.99.

Through Others’ Eyes

“Phil has accomplished so much in his 95 years — in his professional and university activities, in his counseling guidance to countless individuals throughout his career. His experiences of the world as it changed across most of the 20th century into the 21st help us appreciate the changes that occurred and the impact of those changes on individuals and society. His many years at the University of Arkansas give us insight into the evolution of the university — for good and bad. His contributions to the profession of psychology, particularly in Arkansas, were groundbreaking.” — Barbara Shadden

“Phil is truly brilliant and ever gracious. But he’s also a gifted raconteur: If you’re lucky to get onto his busy lunch schedule, you’ll hear the most amazing tales about his life, including his reaction to seeing firsthand the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.” — Timothy A. Cavell

“He’s always very positive toward the client. He encourages them to do the things that are necessary to make them happier, to make them more energetic.” — Jack Marr

And he lost two loves.

But, in 1976, he found his last one. He and his wife, Jane, have been married for 42 years.

"She's 89, and she's taking care of me," says the still-energetic Trapp, who, in conversation, has a habit of responding "You bet" in a warm, enthusiastic way that makes a person feel witty and smart. He has honed this ability in his 60-plus years as a clinical psychologist, and, even now, he still has a roster of clients that he sees every week.

"At 90 years of age, I lost my license, because I refused to do the continuing education requirement," he says with a wry smile. An important part of this particular story is this: Trapp is the author of the Arkansas licensing law that requires continuing education. "I said, 'I will continue to see my present clients if you OK it, but I will not apply for new clients,' and the board said, 'By all means, give the clients the option -- they can stay with you, or they can continue to do therapy with another psychologist.' I've seen people for 20 years, and the original problem has been long solved, and they said, 'I enjoy spending an hour with you,' and I said, 'I continue to learn from you,' and, therefore, until death do us part."

"Phil always made and makes me (and countless others) feel valued and important, and he does so in a way that is genuine and subtle," says Barbara Shadden, Trapp's close friend and former colleague. The two have partnered on several projects exploring the aging process and experience. "Phil is also that rare kind of friend who is with you through thick and thin. I went through some rather 'thin' times, and he always wanted to know what was going on, what I was feeling and experiencing. I have never felt he was and is acting the psychologist with me -- he is always present tense as a friend, but his insights have had a powerful impact."

"We meet lots of people in our lives, so it's important to recognize when someone is a singular gift placed in your path," says friend and former colleague Timothy A. Cavell. "When that happens, you invest and are rewarded over and over. For me, Phil Trapp -- the original Dr. Phil -- is such a person."

'Wherever I'm most needed'

Trapp is the author of three books, including an autobiography, titled Memoirs of a World War I Baby Boomer, that gives insight to his remarkable life. Trapp was born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a small town on the outskirts of Akron that he says bears a resemblance to Fayetteville, his home since 1951. Trapp's father was a postal worker, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom who worked hard to keep house for Trapp and his two siblings. From the beginning, Trapp says, his parents were fine examples of kindness and generosity. Older brother Russ was actually Trapp's cousin, orphaned when his parents were killed by the Spanish flu and raised by Trapp's parents as their own.

He was intellectually curious and prone to conducting experiments from a young age. His mother caught him and a group of neighborhood friends smoking cigars when he was just four years old . In his book, Trapp explains how he tested the theory that praying would lead to a good grade on a test: When he attended Mass the morning before a test at his Catholic school, he slipped study notes into his prayer book and studied while his peers were praying.

"If God disapproved, he would mess up my mind and have me flunk the test," explains Trapp of his third grade reasoning in his autobiography. "I got the top grade. I knew then how God worked. He helps them who help themselves.

"I wisely did not tell the findings to the teacher."

Life trotted along pleasantly for Trapp and his family until the fall of 1929, when the stock market crash signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. His father's job as a postal worker was safe throughout the 10-year hardship and kept food on the table. But they did not escape unscathed.

"My father came home long faced," remembers Trapp. "He said all of our money in the bank had disappeared. Everybody had to tighten their belts. We had two cherry trees and two apple trees. When Russ and I picked apples and cherries, Mother sent us with a sack full of cherries or apples to an old person who needed food. We tended to the needs of the community."

Trapp was only 10 years old when the Great Depression started, but he felt a strong responsibility to help his family. When he heard that a newspaper route was available, he was determined to get the job. But given the dire economic circumstances the country found itself in, he knew competition would be stiff. Showing a remarkable degree of critical thinking skills and plain old savvy, Trapp devised a plan as he lay sleepless in bed the night before. He figured out what the employer was likely to ask him at the interview.

"As if fate sided with me, the manager's opening question was exactly that: 'Why should I give you the job?'" writes Trapp. "I answered without hesitation. 'Sir, I would go to every customer and say if I'm so much as 15 minutes late in delivering your paper, I'll buy it.' I got the job."

All three of the Trapp children were expected to attend college after high school, and Trapp was eager to do so. He was a gifted student and received a full scholarship to Kent State University, just 10 miles away from his hometown. He was in the middle of his second year when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Because he was in college at the time, he was eligible to join the Navy Reserve as an officer. Toward the end of the year that he spent training and learning the ropes, he made a tactical error that meant his wartime duty would be spent performing one of the most dangerous jobs possible. Called into the commandant's office the day after he was present at a raucous bar fight, Trapp assumed he was about to be taken to task for his night of fun. Instead, the commandant asked him where he would like to serve. Trapp thought his patriotism was being tested prior to his punishment being meted out.

"Wherever I'm most needed," he answered enthusiastically.

Was he sure?

"'Yes, sir,' I replied, suspecting that he was again pushing the patriotism button to unravel me," writes Trapp. "'Then, that is all,' he said. 'That is all,' I repeated, gearing up for him to now lower the boom. He nodded. I left his office totally perplexed and asked an office clerk what was the purpose of the meeting. With a surprised look at my ignorance, he said that those with high academics were to be rewarded with their choice of duty."

'It was the stench'

Trapp had just talked himself into the position of wave commander, leading the dozen or so boats, laden with troops, that would storm beaches through a hail of enemy fire. In this position, he was constantly one wrong move away from death or serious injury. Luck, combined with the critical thinking skills he had been honing since childhood, kept him safe.

"When we made the invasion of Iwo Jima, I had 10 boats full of Marines," Trapp says. "I said to the coxswain, 'What would you do if a shell landed near the boat?' And he said, 'I would steer away from the shell.' I said, 'That's exactly what the Japanese gunner would think, and you would steer right into the next shell. Instead, you follow the splashes into the beach.'"

Iwo Jima would prove to be one of the most horrifying battles Trapp experienced during World War II. With the bloody fighting taking place on the small, 8-square-mile island, the carnage was brutal and inescapable. After Trapp delivered the Marines safely to the beach, he and his team were tasked with clearing the shoreline of debris. After that, they would retrieve as many of the most severely wounded American soldiers that they could reach and take them back for medical treatment. What he saw would never leave his psyche, but there was something worse.

"Gut-wrenching as was the sight of dismembered bodies and the sound of screams from mangled bodies, it was the stench of decaying bodies that sickened me the most," he writes. "It is smell, the one sense not reproducible on TV or in the movies, that makes the experience of combat uniquely repulsive. It keeps many soldiers from wanting to relive it, although most of them are probably not aware of the reason."

One might think that near-death experiences, the pressure of providing for the safety of others and the terrible burden of confronting death and serious injury up close would vie for the worst of the experiences Trapp dealt with during wartime. But, he says, there was another responsibility that weighed even heavier on his heart.

"Before each invasion, several members of a division would come to my stateroom and would say, 'Write my mother in case I don't make it,'" says Trapp. His instinct was to treat the matter as lightly as possible. "I would say to them, 'Seriously, what Japanese in his right mind would waste a bullet in your carcass?'

"And then, afterwards, I would write several letters to a mother who I didn't know that her boy was not coming back. The hardest thing. It was the hardest thing."

On September 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered to the Allies. In his book, Trapp writes that, the day after, he and three buddies took a jeep into Tokyo and stopped at Hiroshima on their way back to their ship. At the time, says Trapp, they were unaware of the dangers such exposure to radiation could pose.

"To say it was chilling to the bones was an understatement," he writes. "We saw the crater at the point of the bomb explosion, reminding us of a city that was once a bustling commercial center. The force of the explosion showed in the way the remaining girders of buildings leaned. The girder nearest to us had a note in English penned on it. It ironically said that this was all that remained of a building that was built to save lives. It apparently was once a hospital.

"We could see no life in the city, not even a stray cat nosing about in the rubble. A riveting thought entered my mind. Lives there were lost to save mine. It may be recalled that we were preparing to land Marine troops in the invasion of Japan, with two atomic bombs ready to drop on the beach ahead of us. The 500,000 body bags prepared for the invasion would have been occupied in the first hours, including mine."

New science called 'psychology'

Trapp (and brother Russ) had made it through the war with no physical injuries -- though, surely, he would carry the emotional burden of what he had experienced with him throughout his life. That may have played no small part in why, when he returned to his studies after the war, he honed in on a subject that had captured his interest even before the war: psychology.

"I was a physics major [before the war]," he explains. "Physics majors went to the labs. It was pre-nuclear physics, and we did the experiments of Galileo and Newton. To me, they were just reinforcing experiments that were [already] validated a thousand times. So I refused to go to the labs. I went to the parties with social science and art students and English majors and enjoyed what they talked about. My physics mentor called me into his office, and he said, 'You're my top student in the exams, but you don't follow the students into the labs at night -- why don't you?' I said, 'I want to learn about other people and other studies.' He said, 'I suspect you are people-oriented. There's a new science called 'psychology', and I will invite the chair of the psychology department to dinner Sunday. I want you to attend.'"

The relatively new world of clinical psychology was booming as veterans of the war struggled with battle-related PTSD. Trapp rapidly found his niche in the field and earned his master's and doctorate degrees in quick succession. He was a young man of 28 when he pulled into the maple-lined stretch of College Avenue that led to the University of Arkansas. It was 1951, and he had been hired by his mentor, Merrell Thompson, to help create a doctoral program in clinical psychology.

A few years after he had moved to Fayetteville, Trapp met and started dating a young zoology graduate student named Myra May. Previously, Trapp had fallen in love with a woman right before he shipped off to war, only to have his heart broken when she reconnected with an old boyfriend while he was away.

But now, with Myra, Trapp was given a second chance at love.

"She was darling," he says now of Myra, whom he calls in his book his "second great love." He describes her as a talented musician with a passion for nature, a girl whose sparkling personality drew others to her. Trapp proposed to her by hiding an engagement ring in a sugar bowl while the two were out for tea. They married in Little Rock in 1954. That same year, Myra's doctor found a swollen lymph node during a routine medical appointment. She was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma. The doctor predicted she would live another year, but Myra fought hard and was in and out of remission for nearly a decade.

"Her constitution finally wore out," writes Trapp. "She had saved extra painkillers and made me promise to dissolve the capsules in water and see that she drank it all when the pain got too much to endure. Later, she paled, pressed my hand, and said, 'Now is the time.' I left the room to build up courage, not daring to fail her in her last request. I returned resolved in purpose, fighting back the tears, but Myra saved me the agony. Her eyes had closed permanently."

It would be more than 10 years before Trapp would find his last great love, an event he says was "without doubt, the highlight of my middle years." The two were introduced by mutual friends, and they quickly fell in love and married.

"Some 40 years later, talented and beautiful Jane unselfishly continues to beautify my life," writes Trapp.

'Humanity is winning the war'

Meanwhile, Trapp's career was going nowhere but up. The department was growing by leaps and bounds, he was receiving grants for research and, during the summers, he was accepting fascinating job opportunities -- like helping to place and monitor VISTA volunteers around the country. He considered leaving teaching permanently for one of these positions, but he loved teaching too much.

"I just love the students," he says. "I had the undergraduate course in abnormal [psychology]. One hundred and fifty students. I knew every name. I thought that they deserved to be called 'Mary' or 'Jim' rather than 'You.'"

Trapp would ultimately sacrifice his own ambition for the sake of building a strong department, finding creative ways to wheedle necessary funding out of the administration.

"When he was offered a job at the University of Missouri to be head of a program up there, he told [the University of Arkansas] that he would stay here if they would increase their funding of the clinical psychology program -- they did, and he stayed," says former colleague Jack Marr, who taught at the university for 30 years.

Trapp would eventually serve as director of the psychology clinic, coordinator of the clinical doctoral program and chairman of the department. When he was elected president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), he led the charge against the Arkansas legislature's Act 10 -- a law that required all members of a state agency to list every organization they had ever belonged to before they could be hired. In the McCarthy era of high alert against suspected communist affiliation, Act 10 threatened to stifle academic freedom. The law was eventually struck down by the United States Supreme Court.

Later, Trapp chose principal over politics again and lost a sweet spot on the University's Athletic Committee as a result: After the Central High crisis in Little Rock, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees passed a policy stating that they would not desegregate the school's sports teams. Sensing that he would get nowhere with a moral argument, given the racist objectives on display, he instead took a practical tack. He pointed out that integration was imminent and the University of Arkansas' early willingness to integrate their athletics would ultimately attract athletes to the school. He lost his position on the committee.

"I did not regret it," he says. "It was the right thing to do."

For Trapp, it has been a lifetime of carrying out "the right thing to do." After tallying up what he's seen in 95 years on earth, he says he is most concerned about two things: climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation. The man who witnessed the destruction wrought at Hiroshima is keenly aware that another world war would be the last.

"If we see a third world war, the planet will be up in smoke," he says.

Still, his characteristic acceptance -- and optimism -- remains, especially in regards to the civil and human rights progress the country has made in the last century.

"I think we will handle the pressing problems, and I think we're making progress," he says. "We've spiraled up. Humanity is winning the war.

"We've made major progress in my lifetime."

Lara Jo Hightower can be reached by email at

E. Philip Trapp
NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF "His life has spanned so much history, and his insights and wisdom about that history can inform all readers. I feel we all need remarkable people to celebrate these days, and I can't imagine a person more worth celebrating than Phil Trapp." -- Barbara Shadden, University of Arkansas professor emeritus about E. Philip Trapp

NAN Profiles on 02/10/2019

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