Howard R. Lamar, eminent historian and former Yale president
Howard Roberts Lamar ’51 Ph.D., a venerable expert on the American West and Sterling Professor Emeritus of History who helped guide Yale through a turbulent period as university president in the early 1990s, died on Feb. 22. He was 99.
Lamar’s book “The New Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West” is a canonical reference text in the field. His other books include “Texas Crossings: The Lone Star State and the Far West, 1836–1986,” “The Far Southwest, 1846–1912: A Territorial History,” and “Charlie Siringo’s West: An Interpretive Biography.”
In addition to his time as president, from 1992 to 1993, he also served as dean of Yale College for six years, starting in 1979, and was the chair of the history department. He retired in 1994.
In November, Lamar’s friends and family gathered in New Haven to celebrate his 99th birthday.
Nearly three decades since his retirement, Lamar’s name remains prominent on the Yale campus, both in the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders, which supports work that extends his scholarly vision, and The Lamar Series in Western History, published by the Yale University Press.
“Howard was an extraordinary teacher and mentor, a pathbreaking scholar, and a wise and compassionate leader,” said Yale President Peter Salovey. “His service to Yale was generous and wide-ranging, and he inspired generations of Yale students with his energetic engagement with new ideas and his deep curiosity about the world.”
Lamar was born in 1923 in Tuskegee, Alabama. He attended Emory University, graduating in 1945; he then enrolled at Yale as a doctoral student in history. Ralph Henry Gabriel, the eminent Yale historian, pointed him toward what would become Lamar’s life work, advising him, “Raised in the South, educated in the East, go West, young man!”
With the help of Archibald Hanna, the founding curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana, Lamar mined the rich collection of Western research materials donated to Yale by philanthropist William Robertson Coe. The result, a dissertation on territorial politics (later published as “Dakota Territory, 1861–1889”), marked a turn from the then-dominant “frontier thesis” promulgated by historian Frederick Jackson Turner to a more realist look at the forces of capitalism, culture, and environment in the development of the American West.
As a professor at Yale, Lamar established a long-running and popular survey course, “The History of the American West.” He also became an influential mentor and advisor, well-known for his welcoming and engaging demeanor. “He had a way of giving you confidence and giving you ideas — and making you think somehow they came from you,” said Jay Gitlin, a professor of history at Yale, who studied with Lamar.
Many of his students and advisees went on to become influential scholars themselves, both at Yale and in history departments across the country, with areas of focus including Native American history, the Latinx history of the West, and environmental studies.
“It’s pretty remarkable that one person mentored so many different perspectives,” said Jonathan Holloway, a former dean of Yale College — and now president of Rutgers University and professor of history and African American studies — 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’s service to the university extended far beyond the classroom, from his time as resident fellow of Silliman College to his tenure as dean of Yale College. In that position, he instituted standardized tenure procedures and programs in women’s studies and environmental studies. For his colleagues, he embodied the role of a university scholar-leader. “He didn’t stop being a historian to become an administrator or stop being a teacher to become an administrator,” said Richard H. Brodhead, a former dean of Yale College who went on to become president of Duke University. “He showed that all these things were simply aspects of one core academic value.”
When Benno C. Schmidt resigned as university president in 1992, Lamar was tapped to provide a steady hand during a time of transition. Campus morale was low, as the university labored under a persistent budget deficit. Lamar proved to be a unifying force, rebuilding the sense of school community, reconceiving the annual budget to address its shortfall, and pushing forward a $750 million capital fund drive.
He also nurtured a closer relationship between the university and the City of New Haven; he later called building these ties to the wider community “as rewarding to me as scholarship and teaching.” (His service to New Haven stretched back to the 1950s, when he was elected as an alderman for the city.)
“Howard Lamar was the perfect choice to restore harmony to a troubled campus,” said Richard C. Levin, 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 forward progress. I learned much from watching him make decisions with warmth, empathy, and fairness.”
“Howard had a vision for Yale’s excellence that included an openness to new directions,” said Stephen Pitti, who studied under Lamar and is now a professor of history and American Studies at Yale, and director of the Lamar Center. “That vision didn’t rest on a reproduction of the way Yale had always been but looked forward toward the changing world in which we are all living.”
Even in retirement, Lamar stayed active in the university, leading travel programs for the Association for Yale Alumni (AYA), as it was formerly called, and developing a seminar series in Santa Fe, New Mexico for alumni, on the Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures of the Southwest. He and his wife, Shirley, who had worked at the AYA, received the Yale Medal in 1995 for their many contributions to the university. In 2014, the AYA established an award for faculty contributions to alumni in his honor, conferring the inaugural award on him.
Lamar was predeceased by Shirley, in 2021, and by their daughter Susan ’85, ’88 M.S.N., in 2006. He is survived by his daughter, Sarah H. Lamar ’88, and her husband, Scott M. Gress, of Savannah, Georgia; three grandsons, Geoffrey, Thomas, and Peter Gress, all of Savannah, Georgia; his nieces, Mary Jane Lamar and Katie Lamar Jackson, of Alabama, and Penny and Pym Buitenhuis, of Canada; and his nephew, Paul Buitenhuis, of Canada.
Charitable donations may be made in Lamar’s memory to the Susan K. Lamar Scholarship Fund at the Yale University School of Nursing, c/o Yale University Office of Development Contribution Processing, P.O. Box 2038, New Haven, CT 06521-2038. (Inquiries about wire transfer may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.) A memorial service will be held at a later date.