A man of uncommon qualities

As Howard Lamar approaches age 100, the eminent historian of the American West — and former Yale president — has as many fans as ever.
Howard Lamar at the Yale University Art Gallery

Howard Lamar, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History and former university president, at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Howard R. Lamar ’51 Ph.D. has always made a strong impression.

An extraordinary, generous humanity,” as one former colleague put it. “Grace, charm, and wit,” said another. Others observed: “A spirit of intellectual adventure,” “tremendous dedication,” “a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.”

The world of people who know Howard,” Richard H. Brodhead ‘68, ’72 Ph.D., a former dean of Yale College who went on to become president of Duke University, said recently, “is the world of people who love Howard.”

Lamar, who turned 99 in November, likewise made a strong impression on Yale itself. In a university career that began in 1949, he took on many roles: professor of history (named Sterling Professor of History in 1987); chair of his department; dean of Yale College; and university president. He reinvigorated and redefined a field — the history of the American West — and mentored a new generation of scholars; helped usher the Yale College curriculum into the modern era; and, as president, provided a steady hand during a fraught moment in the university’s history.

While Lamar retired in 1994, his name looms large on campus still. The Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders supports work that extends his scholarly vision, and the Yale University Press publishes The Lamar Series in Western History.

For nearly half a century, Howard inspired students and colleagues with exceptional teaching and scholarship — always encouraging the Yale community to engage with new ideas and remaining deeply devoted to nurturing the life of the university in all its facets,” said Yale President Peter Salovey.

When I meet with alumni, I often hear about their fondness for his courses on the American West and his gift for teaching,” Salovey added. “Howard was always generous to me with his advice and thoughts about the university. He exemplifies service to Yale and the world as a scholar, an educator, a mentor, and an academic leader.”

Howard and Shirley Lamar in May 2004
Howard and Shirley Lamar in May 2004. (Photo by Penelope Laurans)

Go west, young man’

Lamar, who grew up in Alabama, arrived at Yale as a doctoral student in 1945, after graduating from Emory University. He intended to study the history of the American South or diplomatic history, under the direction of the historians David M. Potter ’40 Ph.D. and Samuel Flagg Bemis. But it was another great of the era, Ralph Henry Gabriel, Yale Class of 1913, who pushed him toward his life’s work. As Lamar told it, Gabriel advised him, “Raised in the South, educated in the East, go west, young man!”

As luck would have it, that advice came not long after a gift from philanthropist William Robertson Coe made Yale one of the largest repositories of Western research materials in the country. With the help of Archibald Hanna, the founding curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana, Lamar identified a subject for his dissertation: a nuanced examination of territorial political forces.

That study, which became his first book, “Dakota Territory, 1861-1889,” marked an advance of historical inquiry into the American West. As Jay Gitlin ’71, a professor of history at Yale, has written, Lamar “brought a new sense of realism to a field of Western history still somewhat hypnotized by the celebratory abstractions of Frederick Jackson Turner” — the foundational Western historian known for his triumphalist “frontier thesis.”

Lamar, by contrast, looked critically at the role of capitalism and labor systems in the West, and at the complex interplay of — and conflict among — the region’s people and cultures. His work was a forerunner of what became known as “new Western history,” a movement that casts a critical eye on the role of class, race, and the environment in the development of the West. (His other books included a political history of the far Southwest, a biography of the cowboy-detective Charlie Siringo, and, as editor, a comparative history of North American and South African frontiers.)

Equally revolutionary was his role in establishing Western history as a popular strand of scholarship on the Yale campus. His two-semester survey course, called “The History of the American West,” was initially reserved for history majors who’d taken enough “regular” courses. Over time, however, it became what one former student described as “a tour de force… Students flocked to it.” 

The popularity of the course was due in no small measure to Lamar’s energy and insight as an instructor. “He had a habit during a lecture that, at some point, while standing, he’d end up with his foot up on the desk — I have no idea how he was flexible enough to do it,” said George Miles ’74, who succeeded Hanna as William Robertson Coe Curator of the Yale Collection until his retirement this year.

When he was ready to pull together all the strands of information he’d given you and tell you the significance of it all, he’d say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, what I mean to say…’ And everyone in the class would start scribbling madly.”

A mentor to generations

Even as Lamar’s stature on campus and in his field grew, he remained eminently approachable. He was renowned for the parties he’d host for friends, colleagues, and students, first as a resident fellow at Silliman College and later in North Haven, where he and his wife Shirley moved to raise their two daughters, Susan and Sarah. In a university then defined by hierarchies, Lamar’s parties served to neutralize them.

Howard Lamar could not have mustered a moment of pomposity and pretension on a bet,” Patricia Limerick ’80 Ph.D., a professor of history of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder, once wrote. She remembered joining monthly potlucks for the “Yale Corral of International Westerners,” where attendees often found themselves short of chairs. “It made me very happy, and still makes me very happy, that Howard Lamar sat comfortably on the floor with us.” 

Over the years, he mentored and advised scores of students. Some of them remained at Yale or eventually returned — including Gitlin, Miles, Stephen Pitti ’91, now a professor of history and American Studies at Yale, and John Mack Faragher ’77 Ph.D., Yale’s Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of History & American Studies, who served as the director of the Lamar Center for many years.

Others carried Lamar’s influence into history departments across the country, including: Philip Deloria ’94 Ph.D., professor of history at Harvard, where he focuses on Native American history and cultural history; Susan Lee Johnson ’93 Ph.D., professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who examines race, ethnicity, and gender in the West; Maria M. Montoya ’86, ’93 Ph.D., professor of history at New York University, who specializes in the environmental, labor, and Latinx history of the West; Martha A. Sandweiss ’85 Ph.D., emeritus professor of history at Princeton, whose interests include visual culture and public history; and William Cronon ’90 Ph.D., emeritus professor of history, geography, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

When you look at the types of historians they are, in terms of types of interest, methodology, their own racial and ethnic background, it’s pretty remarkable that one person mentored so many different perspectives,” said Jonathan Holloway ’95 Ph.D., a professor of history and African American studies, former dean of Yale College, and current president of Rutgers University, whom Lamar advised early in his graduate studies at Yale. “That speaks to his listening and his capacious sense of what history can be.”           

Lamar played an equally influential role for many of the undergraduates he taught, offering advice on coursework, writing letters of recommendation, and opening his door to conversations and conferences. “He was just as committed to those undergraduates who would not be professional historians, but who would carry with them the wisdom and perspective of having studied history in its complexity,” said Pitti, now director of the Lamar Center, who took his first class with Lamar as a Yale sophomore (and went on to take five more).

Howard rejoices in the talents of others,” said Brodhead, the former Yale College dean and Duke president. “To this day, when I sit down with Howard, what do we talk about? The students of his whose work he’s proud of.”

Leader and healer

In 1979, Lamar became dean of Yale College. During his six-year term, he helped standardize tenure procedures and added programs in women’s studies and environmental studies — reflecting his catholic vision of a university’s mission. “I’d like to see a university that explores new ideas, that thinks the unthinkable, that anticipates what the major issues will be not just for the university but for society as a whole,” he later said.

After stepping down as dean in 1985, Lamar, then 62, anticipated spending a few more years as a teacher and scholar before entering what he hoped to be an active retirement. (Until 1993, Yale required professors to retire at age 70.) Then, on the morning of commencement in 1992, university president Benno C. Schmidt Jr. ’63, ’66 J.D. informed the Yale Corporation that he was resigning. Morale on campus was already low, as the campus labored under a persistent budget deficit. An interim leader was needed to bring unity while a more permanent successor was sought — and many on campus saw Lamar as the ideal person for the role.

At first, he wasn’t entirely enthusiastic. J. Lloyd Suttle ’69, ’75 Ph.D., then associate provost and now vice provost for academic resources at Yale, recalled that when Yale’s trustees first approached him about the job, Lamar declined. Suttle was tapped to make the case to Lamar for accepting the job. When he called Lamar, Suttle said, “I told him how much Yale needed him.”

I finally accepted the job because I love this place,” Lamar said at the time, describing it as his “last act of service.”

During his year in office, Lamar worked to rebuild a sense of community on campus, instituting an open-door policy for his office and hosting events at the President’s House. But he also made substantive changes to bring Yale back onto steady ground.

Along with Judith Rodin, the then-provost (who later became president of the University of Pennsylvania), he reconceived the annual budget to address its persistent deficit and pushed forward a $750 million capital fund drive. He also nurtured a closer relationship between the university and the City of New Haven, creating an advisory committee charged with developing ideas to revitalize the city.

He was going to see to it that the presidency worked hard,” said Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr. ’57, former secretary of the university. “He had a spine of steel and, most important, he was full of common sense.”

Howard Lamar was the perfect choice to restore harmony to a troubled campus,” said Richard C. Levin ’74 Ph.D., who was appointed president of Yale at the end of Lamar’s interim year. “He guided us calmly and firmly from chaos to order, setting the stage for two decades of forward progress. I learned much from watching him make decisions with warmth, empathy, and fairness.”

A centennial year

In July 1993, Levin became Yale’s 22nd president (a vote of the Yale Corporation, the university’s board of trustees, struck “Acting” from Lamar’s title, officially making him the 21st). Lamar spent one more year teaching, and then retired. But he certainly didn’t slow down.

Most notably, in 1998 he published “The New Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West,” an updated and expanded version of the encyclopedia he’d produced two decades earlier, which offers more than 2,400 entries on significant aspects of the region and its history, along with hundreds of photographs and illustrations.

He also continued to lead travel programs for the Association for Yale Alumni (AYA), as it was then known, in Alaska, California, and New Mexico, and aboard a steamboat on the Mississippi River. He also developed a seminar series in Santa Fe, New Mexico for alumni, on the Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures of the Southwest.

Howard Lamar in 2016
Howard Lamar at home in July 2016. (Photo by David Grant Noble ’61)

Lamar, along with his wife, Shirley, who worked at the AYA, received the Yale Medal in 1995 for their many contributions to the university. And in 2014, the AYA named an award for faculty contributions to alumni in his honor, conferring the inaugural award on him.

Although age began to take a physical toll, he continued to write, publishing his biography of Siringo in 2005 and contributing forwards to his proteges’ books. (The latest one, for a book by William MacKinnon ’60, will be published in 2024). His wife Shirley died last year, but he remains engaged with current events (he consumes the entirety of The New York Times each day). He also reads — and critiques — a constant stream of books. According to Gitlin, Lamar read the entirety of Yale historian David Blight’s acclaimed 900-page biography of Frederick Douglass in only a day or two, proclaiming it, “Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”

As planning began to celebrate Lamar’s 99th birthday, New Haven was the natural choice of venue. For the party, organized by his daughter Sarah Lamar ’88 (his other daughter Susan ’85, ’88 M.S.N., died in 2006), a few dozen close friends gathered in the late afternoon on November 20, at the Elm City Club — also known as The Graduate Club.

Lamar arrived in his wheelchair and took place of honor in the middle of the room; chairs were drawn up around him for conversation. Lamar’s three teenage grandsons all traveled from Georgia to attend; a group of alumni Whiffenpoofs provided entertainment. At one point, the entire room serenaded Lamar with “The Whiffenpoof Song.”

His entire outlook is that people are a gift to him,” said Miles. “He’s fascinated by people, he is intrigued by them, and he sees in people the opportunity to learn more and expand his understanding of the world.”

In other words, his daughter Sarah said, “He’s always liked a good party.”

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