In Memoriam: Robin Winks

Robin W. Winks, the Randolph W. Townsend, Jr. Professor of History at Yale University, died on April 7 at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

A beloved husband, father, teacher, colleague and historian, Professor Winks was also an enthusiastic supporter of and adviser to the National Park Service and a regular detective novel reviewer for the Boston Globe and The New Republic. His scholarly work explored the history of the British Empire, comparative American history, conservation history and the theory and development of espionage. He chaired the History Department at Yale from 1996 to 1999.

“Robin was such a force at Yale and in History, from the moment of his arrival as a faculty member in 1957, that it is all but impossible to describe his unending impact upon all of us beyond what we know immediately-that we stood in awe of Robin’s unbounded energy, his care for teaching, his aspirations for both Yale and History, and a scholarship incomparable in its range and depth,” wrote Jon Butler, current chair of the History Department at Yale.

Born in Indiana on December 5, 1930, he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Colorado in 1952. As a Fulbright Scholar in New Zealand he earned a master’s degree in Maori studies from Victoria University. Returning to the University of Colorado, he earned a second master’s degree in ethnography. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1957 with a dissertation on Canadian and American relations. After a year of teaching at Connecticut College, he joined the faculty at Yale, where he remained for the rest of his career. He held visiting lectureships and conducted research at universities around the nation and the world, including in Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Middle East. He was on leave 1969-71 to serve as U.S. Cultural AttachŽ to the American Embassy in London, and was a regular adviser to various governmental agencies.

Among his many distinctions, Professor Winks was a Fellow of the Explorers Club, the Society of American Historians, the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Commonwealth Society, and a member of both the Athenaeum and Special Forces Clubs. He was a Fulbright Scholar, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Smith-Mundt Fellow, a Stimson Grant winner, and was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1989 Professor Winks won the Donner Medal from the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States.

He held offices and committee chairmanships in the American Historical Association, the Canadian Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and many other professional associations. In addition, he was honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Nebraska.

Professor Winks was the Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford University in 1999-2000, where he lectured on American environmental history. He was also at Oxford in 1992-93 as the George Eastman Professor, when he lectured on the history of the British Empire.

A partial list of his scholarly books includes “Canada and the United States” (1960); “The Age of Imperialism” (1969); “The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence” (1969); “A History of Western Civilization,” with Brinton, Christopher and Wolf (1984). “Cloak and Gown: Scholars in America’s Secret War” (1987); “Frederick Billings: A Life” (1991); and “Laurance S. Rockefeller, Catalyst for Conservation” (1997). He wrote the 16-part television series, “Between the Wars,” for the BBC, and was adviser to several other documentary programs.

In addition to his work as a historian, Professor Winks wrote extensively on detective fiction and was twice nominated for the Edgar Award, which he won in 1999 for his work “Mystery and Suspense Writers.” He is also author of “Detective Fiction” (1980), “Modus Operandi” (1983), “Colloquium on Crime” (1986) and “Secrecy, Exile and Cunning: A History of Detective, Mystery and Spy Thriller Fiction” (1998).

Professor Winks loved the outdoors and devoted much of his career to the study and protection of the world’s superlative natural resources. This interest led him to become the first person to visit every one of the hundreds of units of the National Park System. He served as chair of the National Parks System Advisory Board, and in 1988 won the Department of the Interior’s Conservationist of the Year Award. In 1999, the National Parks Conservation Association awarded him its first gold medal for contributions to public education on behalf of the national parks and proceeded to establish the prize as an annual honor known as the Robin W. Winks Award.

Beyond his teaching and research, Professor Winks was actively involved in the mentoring and nurturing of the student body. From 1977 to 1981 he served as Master of Berkeley College, overseeing one of 12 residential communities within the undergraduate portion of the university. The Master coordinates the intellectual and cultural life in the college, working closely with others to insure the well-being of all students. He ran a popular wine-appreciation society (with Fareed Zakaria, then a student), when the legal drinking age in Connecticut was 18.

An avid traveler and prize-winning travel writer, Professor Winks was scheduled to lead an Association of Yale Alumni trip to the Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet next September. Over the years, he led trips to virtually every territory in the former British Empire, including the Solomon Islands.

In the words of another long-time colleague, friend and fellow-historian John Merriman, “Robin Winks loved Yale University and particularly the History Department that he helped build. He enriched both immeasurably with his intellectual energy, common sense, unfailing eloquence and wit. He was a wonderful Master of Berkeley College and an extraordinary departmental chair. I admired him very much and learned much from him, always enjoyed his company enormously, and will miss him terribly.”

“Robin was a man whose interests went far beyond the normal-the ‘normal’ of any distinguished scholar, I mean,” said Paul Kennedy, another old friend and colleague. “He was one of the greatest scholars of British imperial history. He was a stunning scholar of the history of the US intelligence community. He and Bill Cronon virtually invented environmental studies here at Yale. When he was the U.S. Cultural AttachŽ in Great Britain, he wrote a remarkable guide to Britain….He wrote biographies of the founders of the national parks. He wrote about Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. God, what did he NOT write about? … He taught what was probably the single-most important History Junior Seminar, on the Writing of History. …He was a great scholar and a great mensch.”

Professor Winks is survived by his wife of 51 years, Avril (Flockton) Winks, a resident of Northford, CT.; daughter Honor Winks of Alpharetta, GA; son Eliot Myles Winks of Pittsburgh, PA, and grandson Avery Paul, 5, and granddaughter, Tessa Paul, 2.

Charitable donations in his memory may be sent to the National Parks Conservation Association, 1300 19th St, NW, Washington, DC, 20036 or to the Robin W. Winks, Travelling Fellowship, c/o Berkeley College, P.O. Box 209128, 205 Elm St., New Haven, CT 06520.

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