Famed history professor Robin Winks, a former department chairman and master of Berkeley College who wrote mystery novels in his spare time, died Monday morning at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was 72.
Winks, who joined Yale’s history department in 1957 and served as its chairman from 1996 to 1999, cancelled his classes last fall after suffering a stroke. History chairman Jon Butler said Winks had appeared to be making progress toward recovery and that the History Department had been planning a retirement party for him. No details were available Monday about his recent hospitalization.
During his time at Yale, Winks, who formerly served as head of the Program of Environmental Studies, explored a wide range of academic interests, from Canadian and British imperial history to environmental history and espionage. Outside his academic obligations, Winks wrote mystery novels under a pseudonym.
Butler said Winks was a top scholar, teacher and department chairman.
“He was one of the most extraordinary scholars who has ever taught at Yale,” Butler said.
History professor John Demos said he had the pleasure of visiting Winks’ seminar “The Writing of History.” Demos said he looked forward to it both because Winks attracted the best students to his seminar and because of Winks’ own “electric” energy.
Terry Heller ’02, who took “The Writing of History,” said Winks fit the image of what he thought an old-fashioned Yale professor would look like — wearing tweed suits, never removing his coat, and always having matching handkerchiefs and ties.
“He always spoke in complete sentences and you could hear his semicolons and punctuation,” Heller said. “He was always so articulate even if he was just holding office hours or answering questions after class.”
Heller said he thought Winks was joking when he said he would accept papers for his class in multiple different languages, but Winks turned out to be absolutely serious. Heller said when students mentioned their hometowns to Winks, he would always have been there and would be able to share details about it.
“It really seemed to us that he knew all of history,” Heller said.
History professor Paul Kennedy said in an e-mail that Winks was a “wonderful, select and rather austere adviser to graduate students” who, at the end of oral exams for dissertations, would ask his famous question: “So what?”
Winks, who served as the chairman of the National Parks Advisory Board, had an interest in environmental history and wrote a biography of conservationist Laurance Rockefeller in 1997.
“He was kind of a founder of the environmentalist history movement,” Butler said.
Kennedy said Winks received a medal for being one of only two people who had visited every national park in the United States.
Winks also had an interest in intelligence services, which eventually led to his book “Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961.” The work focuses on the links between Ivy League academics and espionage in the Central Intelligence Agency and its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Winks also wrote a column on mystery stories in the Boston Globe and reviewed books for The New Republic magazine, Butler said.
In another work, “The Historian as Detective in Detective Fiction,” Winks describes how a good historian pieces history together like a detective in a mystery novel, Heller said.
Winks’ papers are sealed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for the next 23 years, so his mystery novel pseudonym and rumors of espionage connections will remain a secret.
In addition to his academic contributions, Winks was an important figure in student life, even sponsoring a “civilized wine appreciation society” for Berkeley students until the change in drinking age laws, Kennedy said. Current Berkeley College Master John Rogers said Winks continued to advise the masters who followed him.
“He was really one of the great presences not only in Berkeley College, but in Yale College,” Rogers said. “He contributed so much to the life of the college.”