The Westerner

Howard Lamar '51PhD served Yale as president--and opened up the history of the American West.

Yale was in a tough spot in June of 1992. President Benno Schmidt ’63, ’66LLB, had unexpectedly resigned three weeks before, leaving a demoralized university that was riven by conflicts over how to solve a fiscal crisis. But a news conference on June 17 brought news that cheered up the whole campus: Howard Lamar ’51PhD was stepping in as acting president.

A Sterling Professor of History who had been at Yale since he arrived as a graduate student in 1945, Lamar had served six years as dean of Yale College (from 1979 to 1985) and enjoyed widespread affection and esteem across the university. He had at first turned down the thankless assignment; he eventually accepted, he said, “because I love this place.” Over the next year, until Richard Levin ’74PhD took office in July 1993, Lamar used his charm and store of goodwill to improve morale.

Howard Lamar was the perfect choice to restore harmony to a troubled campus,” said Levin at a party in November for Lamar’s 99th birthday. “He guided us calmly and firmly from chaos to order.”

At commencement in 1993—the only one at which he presided—Lamar was surprised with an honorary doctorate. The trustees also retroactively named him Yale’s twenty-first president, removing the “acting” from his title in the history books.

Lamar’s year as president was sure to be in the first line of his obituary after he died on February 22 at age 99. But he is remembered most as the teacher and scholar who changed the way we view the history of the American West.

A native of Alabama, Lamar graduated from Emory University in 1945 and came to Yale intending to specialize in the American South. But, he later recalled, history professor Ralph Henry Gabriel ’13, ’19PhD, gave him this succinct advice: “Raised in the South, educated in the East, go West, young man!”

Former student Jay Gitlin ’71, ’74MusM, ’02PhD, says Lamar “brought a new sense of realism to a field of Western history still somewhat hypnotized by the celebratory abstractions of Frederick Jackson Turner”—a historian best known for his frontier thesis. Lamar pioneered a new social history of the West that looked at race, class, gender, and environmental factors.

Lamar’s eminence did not keep him from being approachable and generous to students, whether they were his graduate students or the undergrads who took his lecture course, colloquially known as “Cowboys and Indians.” He and his wife, Shirley, who worked for years at what is now the Yale Alumni Association, opened their North Haven home to his students—known collectively as “the Westerners.”

Shirley Lamar died in 2021, and their daughter Susan Lamar ’85, ’88MSN, in 2006. He is survived by daughter Sarah Lamar ’88 and three grandsons.

Within his lifetime, Lamar was honored with the establishment of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders, the Yale University Press’s Lamar Series in Western History, and an endowed chair in history in his name. He and Shirley were awarded the alumni association’s Yale Medal in 1995. But as the tributes on the following pages demonstrate, his greatest legacy is the people he taught.—Mark Alden Branch ’86

Transforming his field
Howard Lamar was an extraordinary scholar, teacher, mentor, and leader. He was also one of the most generous human beings I have ever known. It may be a cliché, but in his case it really was true: he was beloved by all who knew him.

His contributions to the history of the trans-Mississippi West transformed the field. At a time when many other universities were abandoning Western history, Howard made Yale a center for its study. Beginning with his pioneering political histories of Dakota Territory and Southwest Territory, he moved the field away from traditional mythic pieties to argue for the importance of the West to any sophisticated understanding of the American past. His 1972 presidential address to the Western History Association, “Persistent Frontier,” essentially mapped out what would become the field’s most important new directions for the next generation, insisting especially on far more diverse and inclusive interpretive approaches. His astonishingly wide-ranging New Encyclopedia of the American West, published by Yale University Press in more than 1,300 pages, remains an indispensable reference work for anyone interested in the field—and a delight to wander and peruse.

The fact that Howard persuaded more than 300 distinguished contributors to write for his New Encyclopedia says much about the way he approached his work. Unlike scholars who seclude themselves in their offices devoting years to a solitary magnum opus, Howard gathered, nurtured, and celebrated community in everything he did. He seemed to know everyone everywhere who had ever written anything about the West, often inviting them to New Haven to share their ideas with colleagues and students at Yale. He took enormous pride in celebrating the work of others, especially his own students.

Howard had a genius for friendship. He loved people, and among the most important lessons he modeled and taught in every encounter was the value of generosity and decency and shared joy. His endless supply of humorous anecdotes (and awful puns) made smiles and laughter come easily in his company. Whether you saw him in graduate seminar, undergraduate lecture, the Yale College dean’s office, or Woodbridge Hall, you never had any doubt that he loved what he was doing—and that he loved doing it with you. Yale was lucky indeed for the gift of his presence, as were all of us who knew and loved him.

William Cronon ’90PhD is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor Emeritus of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A reluctant Westerner
When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1976 as a first-year graduate student in history, I was clueless. I thought I could probably write a paper. But I had no idea how graduate school actually worked.

An older student gave me a tip. Before you enroll in any seminars, she said, go around and meet the professors. See if you like them and get a copy of the syllabus. I dutifully made my list of names and set up appointments. I intended to become a scholar of Colonial America, so I put all of the Americanists and a few scholars of British history on my list, as well.

Howard’s seminar on the History of the American West was at the bottom of my list of possibilities. I could take three classes, and his was my seventh or eighth choice.

But when I walked into his office, he was not only welcoming; he assumed I was there because I was taking his class. I showed up in his seminar because I was afraid I might hurt his feelings if I didn’t.

When I walked into that first class, there was only one other student. He did not have a particular interest in the history of the American West, either. But both of us felt committed to Howard, so we toughed it out, even though the very small class size meant we had to do an inordinate number of class presentations and couldn’t ever skip the weekly readings. There was nowhere to hide.

Two years later, I accepted a job as a curator of photographs at an art museum in Texas. I quickly realized that I could not write my proposed dissertation with Professor Edmund Morgan while holding down that job. But I thought my employer would support my research if it related to my work. I wrote to Howard, now very busy as the newly appointed dean of Yale College. Would he become my new adviser and support my new dissertation idea, a biography of the southwestern photographer Laura Gilpin? He immediately said yes.

My museum career morphed into a career as a professor at Amherst College and Princeton University, and along the way I really did become a professor of Western American history. Howard supported me every step of my meandering way.

I now feel privileged to be among the “Lamar students,” so many of whom have helped to shape the field of Western history. But that cohort—now such a source of friendship and professional support for me—did not really exist (at least for me) during my few years at Yale. The field did not have such allure or intellectual excitement then. Hence that tiny graduate seminar. But soon afterwards, the field exploded. And it was part of Howard’s genius that he could make so many of us who had studied with him over a long period of time feel a part of a cohesive community of scholars.

Martha A. Sandweiss ’85PhD is professor of history, emerita, at Princeton.

A sense of belonging
Many times, as I stood outside Howard’s office on the second floor of HGS waiting to see him, I would think, with some anxiety, that I had nothing to say, no ideas. An hour later, upon leaving his office, I had a bounce in my step. I was wrong—I did have something to say! That was great! An hour later, I stopped: Hey, wait a minute. Those thoughts all came from Howard. How did he do that, make me think they somehow came from me? What a gift. I can’t imagine a more generous, affable, and positive mentor. The word that always comes to mind: genial. Howard could put anyone at their ease, and he made all feel not only welcome, but that they belonged!

Howard introduced me to Mory’s. He said it was the perfect neutral ground between town and gown—a great place to meet. He remembered ordering the lamb chops or the liver. He told me, “My grandmother Lamar would listen to Rudy Vallée on her Atwater Kent, so I heard about Mory’s when I was five or six.” For me, Howard provided a bridge. He welcomed and facilitated openness and change—new ideas, new groups, interesting people—but he also understood what was great and good about Old Yale.

I realize how much of what I do as a teacher I received and learned from Howard—writing copiously on the board, telling stories while smiling, and—above all—creating, I hope, a sense of community and family. Howard ranks, with Benjamin Silliman and Billy Phelps, among the greatest teachers in Yale’s long history. What an honor it is to have been one of his students.

Sam Chauncey ’57 summed it up perfectly: “What a wonderful life.”

Jay Gitlin ’71, ’74MusM, ’02PhD, is a senior lecturer in history at Yale and associate director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers & Borders.

Inspiring a love of history
Howard Lamar made an enormously positive difference to my life. In my freshman year in the fall of 1956, I decided to sign up for a history course about the opening of the West, History 37a/b. We students called it “Cowboys and Indians.”
Happily, our professor was Howard Lamar. At age 32, he was full of youthful energy. I was blown away by his accessibility. He was happy to answer every question I had. And I had a lot of questions.

By sharing how much he loved what he was teaching, Howard led me to love it, too. History became part of my life that fall. It has remained so ever since. Howard brought alive for me what I believe is the essence of what any young person can take away from his or her schooling: the love of learning.

Howard became a friend of mine for life. I’ll always remember the breakfasts and lunches I had with him over the years and sometimes with his lovely wife, Shirley.
 It is often said that more important than what a person says or even writes is how he or she makes you feel. Howard brought me to feel, and appreciate, the love of history and what it can bring to our life. For that and for his friendship, I will be forever grateful.

John Pepper ’60, former chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble, served as a Yale trustee and was vice president for finance and administration from 2004 to 2005.  

A special seminar
I knew Howard Lamar for more than fifty years. He was my mentor, friend, and colleague. Foremost, he was my teacher.

I met him in 1970, a few years after I graduated from college, when he gave a lecture at the Huntington Library in southern California, where I grew up. His subject was the mid-nineteenth-century Overland Trail migration to the Pacific coast. It was a familiar story, but Howard told it in an entirely fresh and strikingly relevant way. He asked questions about the viewpoint of migrating families and women, raised the problem of settlers on Native land, and compared the experience with other historic migrations. This was what I wanted to do. I applied for admission to the Graduate School, was fortunate enough to be admitted, and began my studies under Howard’s direction in the fall of 1971.

Howard’s graduate seminar was special. A voracious reader, he introduced us not only to cutting-edge history but to many other kinds of scholarship. An early advocate of a multidisciplinary approach, he invited the participation of scholars from geography, anthropology, politics, and other fields who raised challenging perspectives and questions. He held the seminar in the Beinecke Library, and with the assistance of Archibald Hanna ’51PhD, curator of the Western Americana Collection, he brought in relevant documents, including maps, manuscripts, diaries and journals, photographs. Our responsibility as students was to strike the imaginative spark that would ignite the glowing arc between ideas and evidence.

Such sessions provided numerous grad students with provocative dissertation projects. Howard’s seminar became my beau idéal, the template for my own career as a history professor.

John Mack Faragher ’77PhD is the Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of History and American Studies at Yale.

The multicultural West
I met Howard Lamar in September 1973, the fall of my senior year, when I enrolled in History 37a, The History of the Trans-Mississippi West. Although I was born in St. Louis, the Gateway City of the West, my New York City–born-and-raised parents and I returned east by my fifth birthday. Except for a brief trip to South Bend, Indiana, to visit my dad’s alma mater, I hadn’t been west of the Delaware River in fifteen years. The “West” was terra incognita for me.

Over the course of two semesters, Howard introduced me to the histories and cultures of a cosmopolitan region that was repeatedly transformed by multiple migrations from across the globe. Decades before “diversity, equity, and inclusion” became an academic catchphrase, he emphasized the multicultural origins of the contemporary West. He insisted that we consider the complex historical realities that popular culture obscured. He explored issues of race, class, and gender in disarming manner, wryly observing that while students referred to the class as “Cowboys and Indians,” we should perhaps rename it “Cow People and Native Americans.”

Howard sprinkled his lectures with terrible puns, taking delight in the groans they evoked, but also made sure to alert students before making his major points, routinely introducing them with “Ladies and gentlemen, what I’m trying to say is . . . .” Those lectures reflected his fascination with individuals as well as large historical trends. Alongside Lewis and Clark, we learned about the California highwayman Charles Boles, aka “Black Bart the Po8,” who was reported to have declared, “I don’t care for wealth or riches, I just hate you sons of bitches.”
Howard’s interest in people extended to his students. He routinely advised multiple senior essays. Within the Graduate School, he advised scores of dissertations across his career. At his home in North Haven, he and his wife Shirley frequently hosted potluck dinners for the “Yale Westerners,” an informal group of students, faculty, and staff who had assimilated Howard’s insatiable curiosity about all aspects of Western history and culture. The friendships he made with students were deep and persistent. As his 99th birthday approached last fall, he received numerous letters from students who graduated from Yale College in the 1950s.

For me, as for many other students and colleagues of Howard, his example and guidance were transformative. By the winter of my senior year, I dropped the idea of attending law school and chose to pursue graduate studies in Western history. Six years into that program, Howard’s encouragement gave me the courage to apply for the position of curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In that position, I was fortunate to spend another four decades learning from one of the most inquisitive and kindest men I’ve ever known.

George Miles ’74, ’77MPhil, was curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana from 1981 to 2022.

A golden rule
If it could be excavated from a deep-storage file, my application to Yale’s American studies graduate program would offer evidence of the life-changing impact that a teacher can have on a student. In that application, when I spelled out what I thought were my aspirations and ambitions, the words “American West” never appeared.

Not long after I settled in to New Haven, the words “American West” settled in for a lifetime of use.

What happened?
Once I met Howard, my aspiration and my ambition acquired sharp definition: I wanted to have this professor as my adviser. And so, discarding whatever ill-thought-out statements I had conjured up in my application essay, I became a Western American historian.

Even better, with Howard Lamar as my adviser, my teaching career was, from its start, guided by Yale’s pedagogical variation on the Golden Rule: Do unto others as Howard Lamar did unto you.

Unlike the more familiar version of the Golden Rule, this one came with a checklist of Best Management Practices. Given limited space, I will list and check off only the top five.

1. Greet students with warmth, and quickly convey your desire to learn who they are. CHECK!

2. Find something fascinating in the topics that students want to study, even if your first thought might have been, “How on earth did they ever come up with that?” CHECK!

3. If your living circumstances make this possible, invite the students over to your home and feed them abundantly. CHECK!

4. If a student keeps failing to finish the written work that she promised she would give you, do not say, “That’s it! I’m through with this nonsense!” Instead, set another hopeful deadline and tell the student that you know that she is capable of meeting this deadline (even if you are—privately—beginning to have your doubts). CHECK!

5. Take every opportunity to demonstrate that serious historical study is perfectly compatible with humor and wit. CHECK!

Best Management Practices #4 and #5 are joined together as the foundation of my gratitude to my adviser. Howard Lamar’s “never-say-never” stance toward a faltering young writer propped open the door to a successful career. And his exuberant sense of humor provided me with a lifetime license for laughter, a license I will never let expire. Every moment in this extraordinary person’s company served as an invitation to “pay it forward” and “pass it on.”  

Patricia Nelson Limerick ’80PHD is professor of history of the American West at the University of Colorado.

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