Obituary from the Organization of American Historians

Robert Griffith (1940-2011)

Bob Griffith always had ready a wink and a warm smile as he passed you in the hallway. In his office and at meetings he held firmly to the belief that a little laughter and a reasonable compromise could resolve any problem. We, his colleagues, remember these gentle and generous ways as we mourn the loss of Robert Griffith, professor and chairman of the History Department at American University in Washington, D.C. and OAH Treasurer, who passed away on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at the age of sixty-nine.

A distinguished scholar and teacher who found in university administration intriguing problems demanding creative and innovative solutions, Griffith never saw the meeting room and memo as an escape from library and lecture hall. He cherished and possessed skills in all these venues.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia and raised in southern Indiana, Griffith received his B.A. at DePauw University, where he was a Rector Scholar and elected to Phi Beta Kappa. As a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, specializing in twentieth century political history, and the Cold War, he received his M.A. (1964) and Ph.D. (1967) from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His first appointment was at the University of Georgia (1967 to 1971), then moving to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1971 to 1989), where he also served as department chair.

Griffith won the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize in 1970 for the best first book in American History with The Politics of Fear: Joseph McCarthy and the Senate, published by the University of Kentucky Press.  He published scholarly articles in such distinguished journals as the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History and Reviews in American History, among others. His scholarly work was supported with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and the Guggenheim Foundation. His edited volume, Major Problems in American History Since 1945 was first published in 1992 with a second edition co-edited with Paula Baker appearing in 2001 and a third edition co-edited with Baker and Thomas Paterson in 2007. He also edited Ike’s Letters to a Friend: 1941-1958 (1984) and co-edited The Specter: Original Essays on McCarthyism and the Cold War (1974).

In 1989, Griffith was appointed Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History at the University of Maryland. Much beloved by his faculty, he also coordinated the activities relating to the planning and design of the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which is a centerpiece of the university. In 1995, he became Provost and Professor of History at American University, in Washington, D.C. where his exceptional managerial skills were instrumental in guiding our six colleges through a complex period. At that time, he gave great support to the History Department as we established our public history program, firmly believing that public history provides an opportunity to disseminate the lessons of the past to an audience beyond the academy’s walls even as it offers fresh professional opportunities to younger scholars.

In 1997 Griffith resumed his teaching career, joining the AU History Department, where his classes sparkled with lively enthusiasm. In 2004, when the department chair became ill, Griffith stepped in as interim mid-semester, to be resoundingly elected chair of the History Department months later, a position he held until this past January.

Griffith emerged as the AU History Department’s Happy Warrior, advocating vigorously for new faculty appointments, graduate fellowships, and resources for the public history program. Selfless and generous with both his time and efforts, Bob served not only as an academic elder statesman within our department, but also as a much respected and beloved figure throughout the university. His door was always open. With equal warmth and understanding he welcomed the undergraduate in need of advice, the graduate student in need of research support, and the senior colleague in need of a fresh challenge.

Griffith is remembered for helping junior and senior faculty alike, comprehending that at every phase of academicians’ careers they need assistance and encouragement to advance. He also understood that the personal success of individual faculty enhances the reputation and quality of the institution as a whole and serves students well. Indeed, his nuanced grasp of these interrelations made him instrumental in helping to prepare the university’s new strategic plan, “Building a Global University.”

Robert Griffith had a special place in his heart for the Organization of American Historians. His service began early in his career when as an Assistant Professor he joined the Membership Committee. Later he accepted appointment to the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize Committee and the Committee on Historians and the First Amendment. He served as Treasurer of the OAH from 2008 to end of 2010, where his experience, sound judgment, and mediation skills enabled him to help resolve policy conflicts, often by crafting broadly supported new policies. His warm humor calmed passions as his wisdom and financial acumen helped the OAH through stressful times. Last autumn, he and I sat on his porch, as he recounted with great relish his adventures during his tenure as Treasurer.

In recognition for his superb service, the Executive Board of the OAH awarded him the 2010 Roy Rosenzweig Distinguished Service Award. He was told of the award shortly after entering hospice care and was touched by the genuine love and admiration of his OAH colleagues that the prize represents.

Robert Griffith was a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife Barbara have been long-time residents of Takoma Park, Maryland.  Their home was a warm and welcoming place to friends and colleagues. Bob adored his sons and their wives, Jonathan and Kate and Matthew and Cami and spoke of them often, as well as his grandchildren Bridget, Maya, Caroline, and Rachel.

In his honor and at his request, Bob’s American University colleagues have established a Robert Griffith Fund for the Study of Public History to  match grants and donations for projects involving undergraduate and graduate students.  Bob Griffith was a dear personal friend to me as well as a colleague and I join others from my department, the OAH,  the Washington community, and the greater  community of historians in mourning his loss and sending Barbara and his family our deepest condolences.

Alan M. Kraut, Ph.D.
Vice President-elect, OAH
University Professor of History, American University


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