Williams faculty and staff,
I write, with sadness, to announce the death of Robert F. Dalzell Jr., the Frederick Rudolph ’42 Class of 1965 Professor Emeritus of American Culture. Professor Dalzell passed away late last week after a brief hospitalization.
Bob earned his B.A. from Amherst College and his Ph.D. in American studies from Yale. He taught history and American studies at Yale, ultimately as assistant professor of history, before moving to Williams in 1970. He found in the Purple Valley his intellectual and pedagogical home, and remained here for more than 30 years. In 2003, he told an interviewer, “The honest truth is that I think Williams is the finest liberal arts college in the country… I have had opportunities to leave and have never found any of them nearly as attractive as this place and so have stayed and have not regretted it.”
Over the course of those three decades Bob earned renown, as well as prestigious grants and fellowships, for his research, writing and teaching on what he once called “the historical relationship between business and society… and how that relationship shapes both ourselves and our culture.” His course The Rise of American Business, which he created in the late 1970s, was extremely popular right up until his retirement in 2003—so much so that he often offered extra sections to accommodate as many interested students as possible. His other courses were equally creative and challenging, including Imagining Urban America, Three Case Studies: Boston, Chicago and L.A.; America from San Gabriel to Gettysburg, 1492-1865; and Va Va Vroom! A Nation on Wheels.
The students who took those courses remember them as both challenging and inspiring. Upon Bob’s retirement from Williams, the college honored him with these words: “When sixty former students gather from around the world to surprise you at your final class, you know you have made an impact… Many more than those sixty students have praised you as a mentor, for finding in them potential they did not know they had, and for, as one put it, showing that ‘hard questions are not inconsistent with good humor and that high standards are not inconsistent with kindness.’”
Bob had an equally significant impact through his publications, including American Participation in the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Amherst College Press, 1960); Daniel Webster and the Trial of American Nationalism, 1843-1852 (Houghton-Mifflin, 1973, and W.W. Norton, 1975); Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made (Harvard University Press, 1987); and The Good Rich and What They Cost Us (Yale University Press, 2013).
In addition to the works, Bob also co-authored two acclaimed works of historical nonfiction with his wife and close collaborator, Lee Baldwin Dalzell. Both books—George Washington’s Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America and The House the Rockefellers Built: A Tale of Money, Taste and Power in Twentieth Century America—merge deep research with vivid historical imagination. “As a historian,” he once explained, “it’s up to you to discover what [people] were like. It’s an intriguing exercise.” His imagination was likely fueled by his wide-ranging reading: a list of favorite books that he sent to the college some years ago ranged from Wind in the Willows (“my introduction to social history… and not a bad one at that”) to David Potter’s Lincoln and his Party in the Secession Crisis, to the works of the mystery writer P.D. James. His scholarship earned him numerous honors, including fellowships from Yale, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and Harvard’s Charles Warren Center, among others.
Robert Dalzell Jr., was born in 1937 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Robert F. Dalzell Sr. and Lucille Cain Dalzell. He married Lee in 1956, and the two were known as inseparable here on campus. At Williams he was appointed the Ephraim Williams Professor of American History in 1977, then the Wilmott Family Third Century Professor of History and finally the college’s first Frederick Rudolph ’42 Class of 1965 Professor of American Culture—a title he carried over into retirement. Lee meanwhile pursued her own career here, working for the library for 28 years, ultimately as Head of Reference at Sawyer Library.
While teaching, researching and writing, Bob also chaired the American Studies Program for many years starting in 1979. And he famously loved serving as college marshal, in which role he strove to respectfully update traditional aspects of our most cherished campus ceremonies. Off campus, he was a member of the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy and a trustee for Historic Deerfield, where he and Lee regularly lectured on topics in early American history.
Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, Emeritus, Charles Dew ’58 remembers Bob as “an extraordinarily gifted researcher and teacher. Bob fulfilled the ideal of a professor who really spent time with students and treated them like equals. A mainstay of the American Studies program, he did a lot to get the program on track and expand it into what it is today.” Chris Waters, Hans W. Gatzke ’38 Professor of Modern European History, added, “Bob was a titan in the department, imperious but generous, both terrifying students and yet dedicated to them and inspiring great loyalty. His class on the history of American business drew legions of students and was for many years a staple of our offerings. And the books he co-authored with Lee were pioneering in their focus on the history of material culture. He cared deeply for the department and especially his students, introducing them to the material worlds that he was so devoted to studying.”
Bob is survived by Lee and their four children, Fred, Jeffery ’87, Victoria, and Alex, as well as his siblings Andrew Dalzell and Cindy Dalzell Pitt. He leaves behind as well seven grandchildren, Benjamin, Nick, Abigail, Molly, Eamonn, Lucy and Emma and two great grandchildren, Morgan and Isla.
Donations in Bob’s memory can be made to University School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, or the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton, Maine. The family will announce a celebration of life ceremony sometime in the coming months, and we will share that information with the community when it is available.
In the meantime, our thoughts are with Bob’s many family members, friends, colleagues, former students and admirers.