Robert W. Griffith, UM dean of arts, dies

He was a distinguished historian and chronicler of post-World War II America

  • Robert Griffith
Robert Griffith
February 04, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Robert W. Griffith, former dean of arts and humanities at the University of Maryland, College Park who had chaired the history department at American University, died Jan. 25 of lymphoma at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.

The Takoma Park resident was 70.

Robert William Griffith was born in Atlanta and raised in Evansville, Ind., where he graduated in 1958 from Bosse High School.

Dr. Griffith earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1962 from DePauw University. He earned his master's degree in history in 1964 and doctorate in 1967, both from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

He began his 40-year academic career in 1967 as an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia at Athens. In 1971, he joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst as an associate professor. From 1977 to 1989, he was a professor of history and chaired the department from 1983 to 1987.

He came to College Park in 1989, where he was dean of arts and humanities until 1995.

During his tenure at College Park, Dr. Griffith played a key role in planning and developing the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and bringing innovative information technologies to campus.

"Bob was a guy who had great concerns about students and was very student-centered while at Maryland. He transformed student advising within the college and made it more systematic," said Ira Berlin, who teaches history at College Park.

Since 1995 until retiring earlier this year because of failing health, Dr. Griffith had taught at American University, where he had been provost from 1995 to 1997 and chairman of the history department from 2004 to this year.

David Thelen, who retired from Indiana University in Bloomington, where he taught history, is a longtime friend.

He credited Dr. Griffith with guiding the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Maryland, College Park, and American University "into the 21st century."

"His dedication to students, creative embrace of technology, and pursuit of academic excellence left an enduring legacy at these institutions," he said.

He credited Dr. Griffith with steering the universities through challenges of budget cuts, technology, wider access and curriculum "while strengthening their core research and teaching missions."

Dr. Thelen described him as a "renaissance man" who embodied the qualities of civility and humility as he drew out the best in everyone.

Dr. Griffith's historical interests were centered on postwar America and the rise of McCarthyism. His book, "The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate," was published in 1970 with a second edition reissued in 1987.

He was also co-editor of "The Specter: Original Essays on McCarthyism and the Cold War" and "Major Problems in American History Since 1945." He also edited a volume of Dwight D. Eisenhower's letters, "Ike's Letters to a Friend, 1941 to 1958."

"In terms of scholarship, his own work centered on McCarthyism and its grass roots in Wisconsin. He also wrote on Truman and Eisenhower and the changes in liberalism in the postwar American world," said Dr. Berlin. "He also wrote about what the Republicans and conservatives were going through at the time."

Dr. Thelen had high praise for Dr. Griffith's work on Senator McCarthy and interpreting the changes that swept the United States after the end of World War II.

"His prize-winning book on how political elites were intimidated by Joseph R. McCarthy, 'The Politics of Fear,' remains a compelling analysis of the dangers that fear and the quest for political power can have on our democratic system," said Dr. Thelen. "His important collection of documents, 'Major Problems in American History Since 1945,' is a classic."

Dr. Thelen said that Dr. Griffith "transformed the way we think about post-World War II America — in particular, the postwar remaking of liberalism, the first stirrings of a new conservatism and the new role of expansionist foreign policy in distracting focus from problems at home.

"He had a wonderful temperament, academic values, intellect and a firm sense of how one should proceed in life," Dr. Thelen said. "He also exuded a kind of gentle compassion and humility."

Dr. Griffith was an active member of the Organization of American Historians and this year was presented the organization's Roy Rosenzweig Distinguished Service Award.

A Takoma Park resident for more than two decades, Dr, Griffith had assembled a large library and was an avid reader and traveler.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 12 at American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington.

Surviving are his wife of 49 years, the former Barbara Klinger, a health care administrator; two sons, Jonathan Griffith of Takoma Park and Matthew Griffith of Holliston, Mass.; and four granddaughters.

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