It didn’t take long into my own graduate school career to realize that in academia, nobody has enough time. There is always another class or meetings to attend, a major project or three to struggle with, and there is an endless, self-perpetuating list of small problems and time-consuming tasks. Yet despite all of his responsibilities and commitments, Dr. Griffith always had the time for his students.
I had the privilege to work directly under Dr. Griffith for the past two years, and I saw this again and again. Each spring, he would fight for every graduate fellowship he could find a way to get. When we came to him asking for teaching assistantships, or needed someone in our corner as we wrestled with financial or administrative headaches, he made phone calls, knocked on doors, and pulled strings. Students worried about their ability to survive the rigors of school inevitably found an open door and a reassuring smile waiting for them in Bob Griffith’s office. This was true at all levels too. He spent as much time following up with freshmen in his gen-ed course as he spent with senior history majors on their capstone projects. Everyone who came into contact with the department, and with him personally, mattered.
Dr. Griffith had the knack for finding one forum after another for advertising the accomplishments of history students. He developed History Day for the senior majors, he tireslessly supported the public history program, and he willingly took on one of the greatest challenges facing old-school professors today: learning to use the computer. His championing of the department and its students was not gloating though, and it wasn’t only about improving our reputation. Dr. Griffith saw and related to the history nerd in all of us. While he equipped his students with the academic skills necessary to succeed, he also nurtured the part of us that chose to study history because that’s just what we’re meant to do. He took pride in the work produced in our department, and he strove to make us feel that as well.
It is a slightly somber walk down the halls of Battelle Tompkins these days without the sight of Dr. Griffith bounding out of the history office, taking a moment to smile, say hello, and see how things are going before heading off to whatever meeting or crisis he was dealing with. At the most basic level, this is what made Dr. Griffith great. It is so easy to become absorbed in what we do, to let the piles of work and to-do lists and the stress take the place of the simple but nonetheless important acts of kindness that Dr. Griffith showed on a daily basis. There’s an old expression that says that we are what we repeatedly do, and excellence is therefore not an act, but a habit. Dr. Griffith was an excellent historian, but he was also an excellent human being who cared deeply for his students. As a former one said in recent weeks, “He’s one of the teachers that, when you look back from elementary school on, you think to yourself, ‘That was someone who was made to be teaching others.’” For those of us following in his footsteps, he has set an exceptionally high standard. We will miss you very much.