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In Memoriam: William B. Catton, Professor Emeritus of History

January 4, 2019

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Teacher, historian, and author William B. Catton, the Charles A. Dana professor emeritus of history at Middlebury College, died at his home in Lancaster, Pa., on December 22, 2018, with his wife, Lynn, by his side. He was 92 years of age.

Catton had nine years of teaching experience at Maryland and Princeton when, in 1964, the 12th president of the College, James I. Armstrong, invited him to join the faculty at Middlebury. Catton was one of five Princeton professors that Armstrong, a Princeton graduate and former Classics professor at Princeton, attracted to Middlebury in the mid-1960s.

College Professor and Trustee Emeritus Nicholas Clifford, who also came from Princeton at that time, said Catton’s career at Middlebury “was inextricably bound up with the College’s progression from a good, but still fairly regional, New England college to its eminence today as one of the top undergraduate liberal-arts colleges in the country.”

On the occasion of his retirement in 1984, Catton was saluted in a Faculty Minute with these words: “He brought to the classroom an intellectual integrity, curiosity, and a ‘frolic welcome’ that quickly made him one of the most respected and popular teachers for a generation of Middlebury students… He somehow stimulated in students a desire to learn about their nation’s past… After one year of teaching the American history survey course, the enrollment [in that class has] more than tripled.”

Catton is well remembered for the impassioned speech he gave at Mead Chapel in the wake of the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State massacre of May 1970. A wood-frame building on the Middlebury campus had been burned to the ground, and yet Catton’s faith in the youth of America was evident when he said: “What began to emerge here, over the past few days, was visible, palpable, compelling, and in its small way magnificent… If what we saw happening [on this campus] has the meaning and the potential – I am tempted to say the beauty – that so many of us glimpsed, it will not dissipate or disappear because of a blackened building.”

Because of his gift for oratory, his strong convictions, and the respect he was accorded on campus, Catton was asked to deliver the Commencement Address in 1971 while the nation was still deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War. And in 1975, on the 175th anniversary of the founding of the College, Catton was selected to open the celebration with an address he titled, “America: Land of Change, Land of Hope.”

William B. Catton in 1972. Photo by Erik Borg, courtesy of Special Collections.

President Emeritus John M. McCardell Jr., who joined the Department of History about a decade after Catton’s arrival, said, “Bill Catton was not only a highly effective teacher at all levels in the department, he was a wonderful mentor. In making history come alive, he attracted large enrollments and also majors, and he left large shoes to fill when he retired.” Close friends and colleagues, led by Clifford, McCardell, and Travis Jacobs, the Proctor professor emeritus of history, established the William B. Catton Prize in 1984. The prize goes to a graduating senior for excellence in writing a thesis on American history.

In many ways, William Catton was destined to be an historian. He was the only child of Bruce and Cherry Catton, and his father won both the Pulitzer Prize in history and the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox (Doubleday). Father and son went on to coauthor two books together: Two Roads to Sumter (McGraw Hill, 1963) and The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America’s Founding Years 1492–1815 (Doubleday, 1978).

In an interview in 1979, shortly after his father passed away, William Catton said he enjoyed a close relationship with his acclaimed father. “We both liked martinis, trains, baseball, history. We would talk endlessly whenever we were together,” and they finished the manuscript for The Bold and Magnificent Dream weeks before Bruce Catton died. “We sought not to break new ground in the book,” the younger Catton explained, “but to impose our own thoughts and order upon conventional historical material.”

William Bruce Catton was born on March 21, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio. His family moved to Washington, D.C., when his father accepted an editorial position with the Newspaper Enterprise Association. Bill joined the U.S. Army out of Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest D.C. in 1945, and was training for the invasion of Japan when the war ended. Upon completing his military service, he enrolled at the University of Maryland where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a master’s degree one year later. Then it was off to Northwestern University to pursue a PhD in history, which he completed in 1959.

Princeton hired him in 1958 as a history instructor and promoted him to the rank of assistant professor in 1961. In 1964, he accepted President Armstrong’s offer of an associate professorship at Middlebury and moved his young family to Vermont. The College elevated him to the rank of full professor in 1968, and one year later he became Middlebury’s first Charles A. Dana Professor of History. Catton held that endowed chair until 1979 when he opted to step down from fulltime teaching and accept the title of Historian in Residence, which allowed more time for writing and research.

While at Middlebury he served as chair of the Education Policy Committee, which proposed the 4-1-4 curriculum that is still in practice; chair of the Division of Social Sciences; member of the Teaching Resources Committee; and member of the three-person Senior Faculty Council, which determined the reappointment of faculty. As such, Catton was “central in determining the shape of the faculty and its role in the development of the College,” said his former colleague Clifford. 

In addition to numerous articles, forewords, and book reviews, Catton also coauthored a popular history textbook titled American Epoch, A History of the U.S. since 1900 (Knopf), Volumes 1-3, with the Princeton historian Arthur S. Link.  

In remembering Bill Catton, President Emeritus McCardell said the words of Henry Adams are most appropriate: “A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops.” McCardell added, “A long line of Middlebury students is part of the eternity touched by Bill Catton. Their gratitude matches that of his colleagues for the many ways in which his generous friendship made a difference in all our lives.”

Catton is survived by his wife, Lynn; son, David; daughter-in-law, Agnes; and grandchildren, Owen and Diane. Funeral arrangements were private.

Professor Emeritus Travis Jacobs, who wrote the Faculty Minute for William B. Catton in 1984, shared this Remembrance of his friend and colleague. 

5 Comments

A leader, congenial, welcoming, deliberate, mentor and friend who pushed you to new limits. Senior thesis advisor with soon to be President John McCardell and Professor Jacobs, it was a dream to be guided and inspired by them, with the humility of taking Department Honors post thesis defense....something impossible to forget after a review at Mr. Ups.

by John M Coates (not verified)

I had the good fortune of taking one of his Civil War history classes in 1973 or 74. He was one of my most memorable professors at Middlebury. RIP Professor Catton.

by Russell Anderson (not verified)

In the Spring of 1966, Professor Catton guided me through my Senior Thesis on Confederate Secret Service Operations in Canada during the American Civil War. Professor Catton and Dean Thomas Reynolds also wrote flattering letters of recommendation to secure me a position in the Graduate History program at McGill University in Montreal. When the first draft of my Master’s Thesis was returned to me, my advisor’s comment read, “Well researched, writing style is too ‘Cattonese’”. I was furious, yet quite flattered. George Whyte, ‘66. Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada.

by George Whyte (not verified)

I took Professor Catton's class on 19th century America. I still remember the lessons on Jeffersonian Democracy and Andrew Jackson's war on the Bank. He was truly a gifted teacher.

by Joan Mortensen (not verified)

I've often mentioned Bill Catton to other history buffs as the most memorable teacher I ever had. Why? He didn't lecture. Instead he told stories. The original 6-7 legal size pages of notes I took over an hour and a half dwindled to half a page because listening to him and his stories was more memorable than all those notes. Thanks for the memories Professor!

by Suzanne Witt (not verified)

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