Howard Lamar, former president of Yale, dies at 99
Lamar, who is remembered by his colleagues as a “capacious thinker,” created a new understanding of American history through his study of the American West.
Courtesy of Jay Gitlin
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.”
As Miles has gotten older, he said he has come to appreciate the remarkable quality of Lamar’s “generosity of spirit” more and more.
“He had a warmth of personality that made everyone around him want to be their best self,” Miles said.
Stephen Pitti ’91, professor of American studies and history and director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders, serves as yet another example of Lamar’s impact, having met Lamar for the first time in his lecture course in the first semester of his sophomore year.
Pitti wrote to the News that although he was shy at the time, he found the courage to introduce himself to Lamar, who then invited him to visit his office hours.
“Speaking with him changed my life,” Pitti told the News. “I had never met such an encouraging professor, and I decided after our meeting to take every class he offered over the next two years. I did that, and he also advised my senior essay and helped me apply to graduate school. Over the last 30 years he shaped my understanding of what good teaching, scholarship, and advising should look like.”
Johnny Faragher GRD ’77, former Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and director of the Lamar Center, also remembered Lamar’s warm presence.
Faragher first approached Lamar as he was walking across the courtyard in Morse College, where his office was located. Even though Lamar was on his way somewhere else, he invited the then-graduate student into his office to sit and chat.
“He was very approachable,” Faragher said. “Very human in a place where people could pull rank easily, particularly senior professors. He was very approachable and welcoming.”
History of the American West
As a graduate student at Yale, Miles said Lamar asked his advisor Ralph Gabriel what to write his dissertation about. “Raised in the South, educated in the East, go West young man!” Gabriel told him.
This advice, as it turns out, guided Lamar’s study of the American West, which Gitlin described as having transformed the public understanding of American history.
“Lamar has forced us to see the American West in comparative perspective and to view the frontier not simply as the birthplace of one nation but as a shifting space contested by a variety of nations, empires, and peoples,” Gitlin wrote in a biography of Lamar. “Because he has dared to tell the story of frontier expansion with all its warts and scars, Lamar has given us a West that is more relevant than ever.”
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.
Both Miles and Gitlin, who took Lamar’s hallmark class “The History of the American West,” described it as not only popular among students, but also as one of the most comprehensive courses on American history at the time.
The class began with the study of indigenous communities in North America, then went through transnational migrations that shaped the continent. Miles said that if you took both semesters of the full-year lecture course, you would cover the entire history of America up until just 15 years before the class was being taught. Miles said the class was ahead of its time, studying Indigenous history in the 1970s long before Native American studies became a program on college campuses.
“There are aspects of the past that we need to understand that are topics that maybe have been neglected for a variety of reasons,” Miles said. “But Howard was really interested in trying to find the spots that we needed to know more about from very early on.”
As a professor, Lamar liked to sprinkle puns throughout his lectures, Miles said, adding that Lamar might have known they were bad but told them regardless.
“He had an impish delight in jokes and in the humorous side of life,” Miles said. “It was always fun to be with Howard.”
Miles and Gitlin both described Howard as someone deeply committed to all of his students, even teaching a section himself when his class size exceeded the available number of teaching assistants. He instilled confidence in students, with Gitlin telling the News that after meeting with him, one would immediately feel “buoyed up.”
“He was wonderfully supportive, while at the same time, sort of gently and wisely, critical,” Miles said. “I think he understood people’s strengths, sometimes sooner than they did.”
After serving as a faculty member and chair of the history department, Lamar became dean of Yale College in 1979 and later president of the University in 1992. Lamar took over as president during a time of turmoil, according to Gitlin, serving as a “transition president” who brought a sense of calm and confidence through his deep sense of community.
Lamar took over as president following the high-profile resignations of former president Benno Schmidt Jr. in 1992, as well as dean of Yale College Donald Kagan and University provost Frank M. Turner. Schmidt and his leadership peers had been confronted with a faculty revolt, budget slashes and failing infrastructure on campus.
Miles said Lamar never spoke harshly of Yale but remained focused on moving the University forward, working to develop the cultural centers and reform the tenure system.
“Without rooting against the institution, and in fact, always being proud of the institution, Howard never ever hesitated to think something needed to get better,” Miles told the News.
In Lamar’s role as president from 1992 to 1993, Faragher remembered him as a “consensus candidate,” getting along with everyone but remaining assertive.
Lamar was also deeply interested in Yale’s relationship with New Haven, known to bring together people from both the Yale and New Haven communities over meetings at Mory’s. He served as an alderman and chairman of the New Haven Board of Overseers.
This investment in New Haven is also evident, Gitlin and Miles said, in how Lamar helped start the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute in 1978 to provide resources and opportunities for Connecticut teachers.
“He held you accountable, but always with that charm,” Faragher recalled. “That was the thing. Very few people can pull that off. He could pull that off.”
Lamar is survived by his daughter, Sarah Lamar ’88, her husband Scott Gress, three grandsons, Geoffrey, Thomas and Peter Gress, his nieces Mary Jane Lamar and Katie Lamar Jackson, as well as Penny and Pym Buitenhuis and Paul Buitenhuis.