Richard Leopold

Photo courtesy of Scott Martin

On the ferry - New York to Canada

Photo courtesy of Scott Martin

I am indebted to Northwestern for many things but above all for transporting me to 1920s’ America.

It began one afternoon during my sophomore year in the history department office, where I met a recently retired Northwestern professor. I could not help but be attracted by his smile and his engaging curiosity. He asked questions about my classes and the international studies residential college where I was living. While there was an air of formality about him, he lacked any trace of the self-importance one might reasonably expect from the William Smith Mason Professor of American History.

This man was to become my mentor, resulting in an ideal teacher-pupil ratio of 1 to 1. On Friday evenings I would go to his apartment on Noyes Street to discuss history, he responding to my questions with a sure memory and relentless analytical mind. There were no grades, no papers, just the stimulation of free talk. While it meant forsaking the odd date night and other crucial components of a complete education, the sacrifice was worth it. I was a history major learning more about history after hours than I could hope to learn in the classroom.

Professor Richard Leopold was — no, is — a respected scholar and dedicated teacher who guided hundreds of students through the intricacies of diplomatic and U.S. history. For years he presided over the C13 seminar, meeting three times a week at 8 a.m. in Harris Hall 108. Each year he interviewed those with interest in the class to gauge their awareness of the demands of the course. It was such an unforgettable experience for those enrolled that veterans of the seminar successfully led efforts to establish an annual lecture in his name — which is now in its 13th year — and have endowed the Richard W. Leopold Chair in the history department.

With me he turned out to be both teacher and travel companion. Well after I left Northwestern, he and I trekked through time to the upstate New York of the early 1920s, to an overgrown Grindstone Island on the St. Lawrence River. It was there that the young Dick, an aspiring New York Giants switch-hitter, played baseball at a summer camp for boys.

On that return visit I watched Dick’s eyes, imagining what he must have felt as he saw the area where the camp once stood. There he was, less certain on his feet but no less acute of mind, transported to a distant time, to the long days of youthful vigor and potential. As a boy he had most loved reading Robert Louis Stevenson volumes with their N.C. Wyeth illustrations, a fitting reference for our excursion to this island of treasured experience. I was in tow, sensing his nostalgia, thankful for the chance to be the agent of his travel.

Much had passed during the 70 years since Dick last visited that island. There were undergraduate days at Princeton — where he was among a small minority of Jewish students when Jews were not welcome in the eating clubs — but where Dick feels he received excellent academic training. There followed graduate school at Harvard, where, among his responsibilities, he counseled the first black resident in Adams House. Dick recalled pleasant tea parties at the home of his adviser, Arthur Schlesinger, and the debut of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as a precocious intellectual.

Though an assistant professor of history at Harvard at 30, Dick found himself an Army enlistee in Missouri in 1942. Eventually the Navy intervened to take him away to the relative comfort of wartime Washington, D.C. Dick was commissioned to help catalog troop and ship locations, which sparked a passion for things nautical that would continue with his avid support on campus for naval ROTC.

After the war Dick returned to Harvard before heading to Evanston in 1948. Northwestern appealed to him from the beginning. The department he joined was not large, giving him a chance to influence its growth. Never having learned to drive a car, he lived near campus — close to his students and the library — in the Northwestern Apartments on Orrington Avenue.

Like the experience of so many in the academic world, there were excursions made and not made. In 1935 he spent a summer in New Harmony, Ind., to conduct research for his dissertation on Utopian Robert Dale Owen. There followed a rough, third-class, transatlantic voyage, while he was still an indigent graduate student, to continue the Owen research; it was a journey that ended with a more stylish, second-class return accompanied by his mother. In the 1950s he regretted turning down an offer to become a professor of U.S. history for a year at Oxford University, citing the need to finish another book. He returned to Princeton for a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he found political scientist George Kennan (H57) approachable, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer less so. Dick remained at Northwestern, though other universities beckoned.

While I did not have the benefit of studying with him in a traditional setting, I feel I was amply rewarded through an informal, long-running tutorial. Among the many sessions, one occurred in 1990 on a trip to Springfield when he and I spoke at length about Lincoln. While it may not have been a typical first date, a friend I had met two days before joined us for the drive and married me in spite of it. On another trip, as Dick and I strolled the grounds of the Morton Arboretum near Chicago, at my request he named not only all the U.S. presidents but their opponents as well. On yet another outing, this time to Indiana, we discussed Hiroshima and its moral implications. The tutorial continues to this day, as I see him regularly at his nursing home in Evanston.

Fully engaged over the length of a tumultuous century, ever stimulated by current and historical affairs, dedicated to helping others in their quest for understanding, always gracious, Richard Leopold has led a life of uncommon service. He has given much to many, at Northwestern and elsewhere. It is my privilege to be one of the recipients. That is why I write this brief expression of gratitude, not only for the professor himself but for the institution that brought us together.

Scott Martin (WCAS84) of Glenview, Ill., owns a firm that provides consulting services to the pharmaceutical industry.


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