Alan Dawley did not fit the stereotypical role of a professor, one shut up in his ivory tower with his books and research. The professor of history was instead a passionate activist and pacifist, a man who dedicated his life to peace and social justice, inspiring and mentoring both students and faculty.
That is why his death from heart failure on March 12 while on a research trip to Mexico shocked and saddened the College community that he made such a mark on.
“His sudden passing is an immense loss for the entire community,” his friend and colleague, John Landreau, professor of women’s and gender studies, said.
Dawley, a Philadelphia resident, had been a professor at the College for 38 years, after receiving his undergraduate education at Oberlin College and his master’s and doctorate degrees at Harvard University. He made a stir in the world of history scholarship early on, winning the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1977 for his book “Class and Community.” The award is widely considered the premier prize for history research and writing.
Dawley received many other accolades during his career, including two National Endowments for the Humanities fellowships and a Distinguished Research Award from the College. His work focused mainly on the United States progressive movement, and he was a visiting professor and scholar at other colleges, like Rutgers University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania and was considered one of the top historians in the world in his field of study. He wrote three books, including the award-winning “Class and Community,” and was working on an ambitious textbook project titled “Global America,” at the time of his death.
Yet as impressive as his scholarship was, students and faculty remember him most for his generosity of spirit and dedication to improving the world he lived in.
Dawley urged students of history to view it from the social history perspective, to examine not just the powerful, important historical figures and events, but to take a closer look at the different classes and their dynamics, challenging the status quo and accepted ways of thinking.
Jessica Baker, senior management major who was taking his “Global America” course, said, “He wasn’t teaching this course to make us memorize facts, but to really care about (what) is going on in our country and how America has affected the world . He really tried to provoke our thoughts on the subject rather than just lecture.”
This atypical view of U.S. history led him to create and guide the U.S. studies minor program, which took faculty from different disciplinary studies to create a new way to study and examine U.S. history and its global impact.
“Think about the U.S., he urged us, from the bottom up, the top down, the inside out, and the outside in,” Susan Albertine, dean of the School of Culture and Society, said. “That approach changed my thinking about my scholarship and teaching in a palpable and dramatic way.”
It was Dawley’s own experiences as a social crusader that inspired many of his projects and earned him the esteem of those who worked closely with him. He worked for the civil rights movement in 1964 as part of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi and vocally protested against the Vietnam War as a student. He was a leader of Historians Against the War, and participated in many peace projects and forums.
“I admired the way he integrated his commitment to social justice with his work both as a teacher and scholar, and as a friend I admired the generosity, kindness and curiosity with which he engaged everyone he knew,” Landreau said.
He also founded the Center for the Study of Social Justice at the College, a program that focuses on current social issues and brings prominent speakers and lecturers to campus. Along with other professors, he also helped create issue forums in the late ’80s that dealt with diverse topics like racism and nuclear disarmament, according to Morton Winston, professor of philosophy.
“In all of these activities Alan never lost his passion for justice and he never gave up the fight,” Winston said. “I am confident that his legacy will endure in the minds and hearts of those who knew him, who will carry on the struggles for justice . to which he dedicated his life.”
His legacy includes mentoring hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of the students who studied under him and inspiring others to become interested in justice and politics. Students and faculty plan to commemorate their friend, colleague and teacher at a memorial service on April 10.
John Leschak, who graduated from the College last year, found his own anti-war roots after joining the Progressive Student Alliance, of which Dawley was an advisor.
“Professor Dawley inspired me to fight for social justice and I am proud to say I am alum of a college that hires such critical thinkers,” he said in an e-mail.
Ann Marie Nicolosi, professor of women’s and gender studies, had Dawley as an undergraduate and credits him with shaping and inspiring her academic career.
“He helped groom me for graduate school,” she said, a task which included writing letters of recommendation for her and reading parts of her dissertation.
She stressed his achievements in the field of history, saying, “When you got to graduate school to study history, Alan Dawley’s work is required reading. There are few professors on this campus with the impact Alan Dawley had.”
In remembering Dawley, Nicolosi recited the words of Ted Kennedy at the funeral of his brother Robert, who wished his brother to be remembered as “simply a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
She said, “I think that kind of summed up Alan in a much more eloquent way than I ever could.”