University commemorates former University President Howard Lamar in memorial service
Howard Lamar GRD ’51 — former University president, Yale College dean and history professor — was remembered for his study of the American west, community-oriented leadership philosophy and role as a loving father in a memorial service on Saturday.
Courtesy of Jay Gitlin
A memorial service for former University President and history professor Howard Lamar GRD ’51 was held at Battell Chapel on Saturday.
Lamar, who held many roles in his career at the University, died on Feb. 22 at the age of 99. He served as Yale College dean from 1979 to 1985 and as University president from 1992 to 1993 before retiring in 1994. But Lamar’s time at the University began in 1945, when he first set foot on campus as a graduate student.
Among those honoring his impact on the University were current University President Peter Salovey, former University President Richard Levin GRD ’74 and former University Chaplain Rev. Frederick Streets DIV ’75.
“He was a great dad and did wonderful things for our family,” Lamar’s daughter Sarah Lamar ’88 told the News on Sunday. “He cared deeply about Yale as an institution, and he really was devoted to it for decades, from the ’40s until he passed away.”
Lamar’s daughter recalled the “many gifts” that Lamar bestowed upon her and her sister, including the values of working hard and maintaining lasting friendships. She attributed these values to her father’s study of the western United States.
“He impacted so many generations of undergraduate and graduate students,” Sarah Lamar said. “I hope that he’s remembered in that way.”
Before assuming the role of University president, Lamar was known as being the professor of a popular year-long survey course called “History of the American West,” which he taught for nearly four decades. Lamar was also chair of the University’s history department.
Johnny Faragher GRD ’77, former Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders, wrote to the News that he first met Lamar when he arrived at the University in 1971. Faragher wrote that, as he was feeling “somewhat intimidated by the University’s reputation,” he paid a visit to Lamar at his office in Morse College.
Although he encountered Lamar just as he was leaving for lunch, Faragher said Lamar immediately changed direction and led Faragher to his office for a reassuring talk.
Faragher wrote that he spent his own career as a professor, first at Mount Holyoke College and then at Yale as Lamar’s successor, “emulating [Lamar’s] example.”
“He was my mentor and one of my most important models of a scholar and teacher, ” Faragher wrote. “He introduced us to all kinds of perspectives on the past and encouraged us to think broadly and creatively. He did not insist that we follow his path, but our own.”
Faragher also wrote that he hopes the University will honor Lamar by having the history department offer more courses covering the American West.
Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, senior lecturer in history and associate director of the Lamar Center, echoed Faragher’s sentiments, commenting that the study of the American West had been one of the University’s strengths.
“What we’d like to do is see that his legacy continues, ” Gitlin said. “We think that the University should commit to finding somebody to teach Western history … Yale was a leader in training people in that field, so we’d like to see it continue.”
Gitlin took Lamar’s popular survey course on the American West as an undergraduate and continued taking Lamar’s classes as a graduate student in History at the University.
At the memorial, Gitlin and his wife Ginny Bales played several musical numbers, including a rendition of “Stars Fell on Alabama” in reference to Lamar’s hometown. They also played “I’m an Old Cow Hand,” alluding to a story that Lamar had told Gitlin about being mistaken for a cowboy while doing research.
Gitlin told the News that Lamar embodied a “social wisdom” and a “genius” in creating community and friendships.
“Howard was a master at telling jokes on himself… he was very humble, genial and had great humility,” he said. “He valued people, he saw people, he welcomed people and he knew how to connect people.”
George Miles ’74 GRD ’77, former curator of the West Americana collection at the Beinecke, who first met Lamar as an undergraduate, told the News that one of Lamar’s greatest strengths was recognizing other people’s strengths and “empowering” them to make use of those skills.
He added that one of Lamar’s most distinguishing features in his time at the University was his “geniality and engagement” in an environment where academic demands could make socializing feel difficult.
“He was intrigued by characters from the American past … and he carried that same enthusiasm for students,” Miles said. “He met you where you were, and you had to prove to Howard that you weren’t worthy of his interest.”
Both Gitlin and Miles lauded Lamar for his ability to instill the University with a strong sense of community. When former University President Benno Schmidt ’63 unexpectedly resigned in June 1992 after accepting an offer to head the Edison Project — which was focused on building what would be the first national, for-profit private school system in the U.S — Miles said that the “morale of the University was difficult.”
The Yale Corporation tapped Lamar to serve as interim president before Levin was eventually appointed president. Miles said that Lamar brought “an enormous amount of goodwill” to the role and that Lamar had a “deep wisdom” that came from his extensive time and service to the University as a residential fellow of Silliman College, dean of Yale College and his participation in numerous University committees.
With current president Salovey on track to step down this summer, Miles added that he believes the Yale Corporation — which is in charge of choosing Yale’s next president — should strongly consider “someone who has the self confidence to be able to listen to other people without feeling threatened.”
Gitlin told the News that “everybody was thrilled” when Lamar was announced as interim president and that “he not only was a great professor” but a “great connector of people.”
Both Gitlin and Miles emphasized to the News that one of Lamar’s greatest strengths was his receptivity to change. Miles said that although Lamar “had a remarkable sense that Yale was a great place,” he also knew “ that it was incomplete … that it could and should change to get better.”
“He knew how to connect old Yale to new Yale,” Gitlin said. “He appreciated what Yale was and what some of Yale’s strengths were, and he knew how to bring that to people to help them understand what was good about this place.”
The Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders was established in Lamar’s honor in 2000.
Correction 9/25: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year former University President Benno Schmidt resigned.
Correction 10/4: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jay Gitlin’s graduation year and incorrectly stated that he attended graduate school at the Yale School of Music.