Howard Lamar, Historian of American West and Yale's President, Dies at 99Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, Yale, American West
Howard R. Lamar GRD ’51, former dean, University president and Sterling professor of history at Yale, died on Wednesday at the age of 99.
Lamar, who served as University president from 1992 to 1993, as well as dean of Yale College from 1979 to 1985, began his career at Yale as a professor of “History of the American West” — a year-long lecture class that he taught for nearly four decades. Lamar also served as chair of the history department and wrote several books, including “The New Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West.” His legacy at Yale will continue under the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders.
George Miles ’74 GRD ’77, former curator of the West Americana collection at the Beinecke, first met Lamar as a senior undergraduate at Yale. After Miles graduated, Lamar served as his advisor and suggested he apply for the Beinecke curatorial position — a job Miles never considered before Lamar’s suggestion and ended up working at for 41 years.
“He was an extraordinarily transformative influence on my life,” Miles said “I’m not unique in that there are dozens and dozens of people across the country who would tell you a similar story.”
Among those people is Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’82, who continued to take classes with Lamar as a graduate student at Yale School of Music after taking his signature lecture course as an undergraduate. Lamar later served as Gitlin’s mentor when he got his PhD in history at Yale.
Gitlin described Lamar’s personality as “utterly genial,” remembering his sense of humor and beaming smile, as well as his ability to bring people together. This “knack for creating a sense of family,” according to Gitlin, may be attributed to his upbringing in the South. Lamar grew up in rural Alabama and attended Emory University.
“He saw people,” Gitlin said. “He saw people because there was a sense of closeness and because he understood what we all have in common, so I think he was able to cross barriers in ways that others weren’t.”
According to Ned Blackhawk, the Howard R. Lamar professor of American studies and history, Lamar’s vision of the American West included Indigenous and non-Anglophone populations, especially in the Southwest, and he imparted a vision of western history that — like the West as a whole — was “multi-racial, contested and deeply political.” Lamar’s students included several who would become founding figures in the “New Western History” of the early 1990s, Blackhawk added.
“Lamar’s classes, students and works prioritized Native history in ways that brought heightened attention and ultimately institutional commitments to Native American history and Native American and Indigenous Studies,” Blackhawk told the News.
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