William G. Wagner ~ Memorial Minute

On February 16, Tom Kohut read the Memorial Minute for William “Bill” Wagner at the Faculty Meeting:

Memorial Minute for William G. Wagner
Brown Professor of History, Emeritus

Bill was born in 1950 in Erie, Pennsylvania.  There were many things that were important for Bill about growing up in Erie.  The place instilled in him, I suspect, down-to-earthness, authenticity, and modesty.  Most important about Bill’s life in Erie was meeting Linda Hammond at a middle-school dance.  Linda would be Bill’s lifelong partner.  Without Linda, Bill simply wouldn’t have been Bill.  Also connected with Erie (and with Linda as it happens) was Bill’s love of Penn State football.  In fact, it was Bill’s secret fantasy to be quarterback of the Nittany Lions, a bit of a stretch you might think, but Bill did have a college football career.  At Haverford College.  He wasn’t the quarterback though.  He was incredibly, if you visualize Bill, a defensive lineman.  I’m not sure if Bill ever actually made a tackle.  Bill proudly recounted that in one rout of Haverford by Juniata College, he actually touched the running back as he whizzed by.  In 1972, with Bill’s graduation, Haverford College, doubtless coincidentally, dissolved its football team.

Bill’s experience at Haverford profoundly influenced him.  Bill absorbed Haverford’s Quaker spirit.  Those of us at Williams who attended meetings that Bill ran can recognize the Quaker commitment to consensus in Bill’s conduct as chair.  When Bill was chair, meetings may have run a little longer, but everyone’s voice was heard and respected, and more often than not Bill’s meetings arrived at a place where everyone felt that they had contributed to the eventual decision and could see themselves represented in it.  Similarly, Bill assimilated the Quaker commitment to justice.  Justice for Bill wasn’t only an achievable goal; it was also a process, how one sought to achieve justice.  A commitment to justice, to fairness, to human rights, both as a value and in their concrete manifestations, animated everything that Bill did.  He would have made an outstanding lawyer, the career path taken by his beloved daughter Kate who has become a federal prosecutor.  Haverford obviously also fostered Bill’s intellectual passion, his love of history generally and of Russian history in particular.  In fact, Bill designed his own Russian studies major at Haverford.

Following his graduation in 1972, Bill and Linda moved to Oxford.  His original plan had been to study law, but Bill shifted to Russian history, earning his DPhil from Oxford in 1981.  One of Bill’s friends and graduate school colleagues in history was Rick Trainor, current Rector of Exeter College.  Bill came to Williams from Oxford in 1980, teaching generations of Williams undergraduates over the next thirty-seven years.  Bill’s teaching style was genuinely and consistently Socratic.  His gentle but persistently probing questions developed the capacity of his students to think analytically, with complexity and sophistication, to make and defend arguments effectively and with integrity.  Indeed, a striking number of Bill’s students have gone on to have successful academic careers.

Bill was not only an excellent, demanding, and supportive teacher, he also had a highly successful career in administration at the college, beginning in the office of the dean of the college.  He served on and chaired numerous college committees, and he directed the WEPO program.  For more than four years he was the dean of the faculty and for a year interim president of Williams between the presidencies of Morty Schapiro and Adam Falk.  As people at this meeting can attest, those are demanding jobs.  But Bill faced the critical challenge of having to deal with the impact of the financial crisis on the college.  Along with his friend and colleague, Bill Lenhart, the “two Bills,” and acting dean of the faculty, Andrea Danyluk, helped steer Williams through those difficult years without cutting programs and more important without staff or faculty losing their jobs.

Bill was a respected and much-loved member of the history department, serving as chair for a total of five years.  Craig Wilder, whose book, Ebony and Ivy was just the subject of “Williams reads,” fondly recalls Bill arriving at his doorstep with a bottle of champagne, a bouquet of flowers, and a big grin, to let Craig know that he had gotten tenure.  Bill developed a robust curriculum in Russian history, from the medieval period to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Following his research interests, he offered courses on religion in modern Russia and on Russian and Soviet women.  Indeed, Bill was one of the first members of the department to make the history of women an important part of all his courses.  His colleagues remember fondly—and in the case of a few job candidates perhaps not so fondly—how, at the conclusion of every job talk and lecture, Bill would invariably immediately raise his hand to ask “three questions.”  Those three questions were invariably lengthy, sophisticated, insightful, and challenging.

Bill was an outstanding and devoted scholar, prominent and influential in the field of Russian history.  Bill’s scholarly production was slow but steady, deeply researched, carefully argued, thoughtful, and broadly significant.  Bill’s first book, Marriage, Property, and Law in Late Imperial Russia, explored and exposed the crucial role played by the law, lawyers, and the courts in creating a more liberal civil society in late 19th-century Tsarist Russia.  Bill’s second major scholarly project, on female monasticism, built on his longstanding interest in women’s history.  In the book, Orthodox Sisters: Religion, Community, and the Challenge of Modernity in Imperial and Early Soviet Russia, Bill analyzed how the religious beliefs and practices of the sisters at the convent in Nizhny Novgorod responded to the challenges of modernization, recognizing the women’s agency, creativity, and administrative skill.  It’s wonderful that Bill was essentially able to complete the book before his sudden and unexpected death.  It’s sad that Bill didn’t live to see its publication.  But it’s again wonderful, and testifies to his influence as a teacher and his standing in his field, that former students and colleagues are putting the finishing touches on Bill’s manuscript as it moves to publication.

Despite his untimely death, Bill’s influence endures, in his family, in his students, in his scholarship, and in our community.  Indeed, I think one can say that Bill Wagner is part of the DNA of Williams College.