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In Memoriam: Nicholas Clifford

May 28, 2019

Nicholas Clifford, 1990

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Middlebury today mourns the loss of Nicholas R. Clifford, who, as a scholar, professor, administrator, trustee, and driving force behind the study of Chinese language and East Asian studies at the College, has left a lasting impact on the institution he so dearly loved and served for more than half a century.

“He was, quite simply, one of the most admirable and beloved members of the widespread College community,” said John D. Berninghausen, the Truscott Professor Emeritus of Chinese Studies. “A real junzi [Chinese for ‘gentleman’ or ‘cultivated person’], Nick was a man of honor and integrity, personal as well as professional. He was one of the wisest, fairest, most judicious, and intelligent people I have ever met.”

Known to friends and family as “Nick,” Clifford held the rank of College professor emeritus until his death on May 25, 2019, at his home in Middlebury with his children by his side. He was 88 years of age.

A 1952 graduate of Princeton who earned his MA and PhD in 19th- and 20th-century British foreign policy history at Harvard, Clifford joined the Middlebury faculty in 1966. Thirty years later, after he left his imprint on the College community, Clifford was elected to the Board of Trustees and served six years as a term trustee.

Revered by students, colleagues, and community members alike for his humility, generosity, and integrity, his selection to the Board of Trustees  “speaks volumes,” said Berninghausen. “The trustees of the College clearly placed considerable value in having the benefit of his wisdom and experience.”

Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, who arrived in 2015, came to view Clifford’s legacy as nothing less than extraordinary. Upon learning of his death, she said, “He was a person who could fulfill so many different roles for the institution—beloved teacher and mentor, intellectual leader, institutional thinker. He leaves us with a profound example of Middlebury’s best values of integrity, rigor, connectedness, compassion, and openness.”

Born on October 12, 1930, in Radnor, Pa., Clifford attended Episcopal Academy in nearby Newtown Square and later enrolled at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. After completing his BA at Princeton, he served four years in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer, including deployments in the Taiwan Strait. Said Berninghausen, “Nick occasionally credited those experiences in Taiwan and aboard ship off the eastern coast of mainland China as having piqued what turned out to be his abiding interest in Chinese history and culture.”

In 1957 Clifford married Deborah Pickman, a historian of New England women’s history, whom he had met at Harvard while she was attending Radcliffe College. (Married for more than 50 years, she predeceased him in 2008.) After earning his doctorate in 1961, Clifford was an instructor in humanities at MIT and an instructor in history at Princeton before Middlebury came calling in 1966.

The Cliffords had four small children when Nicholas joined the Department of History as an assistant professor at the age of 35. Demonstrating a deep commitment to his scholarship, Clifford took the Language Pledge in the summer of 1969 and studied Chinese (at the third-year level) at the Middlebury Chinese School to gain greater proficiency in the language. He also studied Chinese at the Taipei Language Institute in 1970 and 1971 to further enhance his skills.

His Middlebury résumé includes professor of history and holder of the William R. Kenan Professorship in History, chair of the history department; dean of the summer Chinese and Japanese Schools; vice president of academic affairs; provost; and acting president of Middlebury College.

Clifford stepped down from active teaching in 1993. After retirement he served a term on the Connecticut College Board of Trustees, and he continued to write and stay active both in his community and in his field of scholarship. In 2013 Middlebury College established the Clifford Symposium in his honor. The annual event invites students, faculty, and scholars to explore a different topic at the beginning of each academic year.

His books include Retreat from China: British Policy in the Far East, 1937–1941 (published in 1967); Shanghai, 1925: Urban Nationalism and the Defense of Foreign Privilege (1979); Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s (1991); The House of Memory (1994); and A Truthful Impression of the Country: British and American Travel Writing in China, 1880–1949 (2001). He also published numerous articles and book reviews in Commonweal, the Journal of British Studies, Pacific Affairs, the Journal of Asian Studies, and other scholarly journals.

In addition, Deborah and Nicholas Clifford coauthored Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927–1931 (2007), which won the 2008 Richard Hathaway Award from the Vermont Historical Society.

And yet all of his stellar accomplishments say little about the direct impact that Clifford had on generations of Middlebury students. To thaty point, Professor Emeritus Berninghausen said: “Nick Clifford was revered by many, many students who had the good fortune to study Chinese history under his tutelage. With his remarkable attention to detail and his capacity for sustained effort, virtually all of Nick’s lectures were extremely clear, well-organized, erudite, and very much to the point.

“Whenever [he was] invited to give a guest lecture in another course, his lecture would be both fascinating and beautifully structured. No one could read a lecture as well as Nick; it sounded as spontaneous and lively as if he were not reading it at all, when in fact he probably had typed out every word. I seriously doubt that any Middlebury history majors writing a senior thesis ever had more individual attention lavished upon their drafts than those who had him as their senior thesis advisor.”

Nicholas Clifford was predeceased by his beloved wife, Deborah, and his brother Pier. He is survived by his four daughters and their husbands: Mary and John Tittmann of Cambridge, Mass.; Sarah and Ledlie Laughlin of Washington, D.C.; Susannah and Tom Blachly of Adamant, Vt.; and Rebecca Clifford and Alessandro Panzani of Carmignano, Italy. He is also survived by six grandchildren: India Cooley, Nicholas Laughlin, Hester Tittmann, Henry Tittmann, Adam Blachly, and Alex Panzani.

A funeral Mass will take place on Tuesday, June 11, at 10 a.m. at St. Mary/Church of the Assumption, 326 College Street in Middlebury, with a reception at the Kirk Center to follow.

15 Comments

Grateful homage to the good man Nick Clifford, and RIP. We shared many enthusiasms in history, particularly that of foreigners in China and Chinese in 1860's America; and that of Middlebury College (for which he aided with advice on my "Whose Woods These Are" and "The College on the Hill"). His late wife Debbie Clifford had been a good friend since our shared fellowship session at Bread Loaf in 1980, which of course preceded my time of Middlebury teaching by seven years. I dined with them many times in their hillslope house viewing the Bristol Cliffs of the Green Mountains.
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At Middlebury's Eastview retirement community, where my late in-laws resided, Nick's talks as well as his stewardship of the Eastview film series, brightened many sunset lives. Truly he was a gentleman and a scholar, grace and enthusiasm incarnate.
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by David H Bain (not verified)

Prof. Clifford was a kind man who responded to all my emails up until the month he passed away. He will he remembered as a lifelong academic passionate about his work. May Our Heavenly Father bless him in the afterlife

by Allan Lei (not verified)

He was a prince among men. They don’t make them like this anymore. Sincerest and heartfelt condolences to his beautiful family.

by Lauren Geiger (not verified)

Prof. Clifford made a lasting impression. I continue to remember most of what I learned in Chinese History some 45 years later. Not only was Dr. Clifford an excellent teacher and academic , he was a good and decent human being, a kind mentor, and one who “walked humbly with his God. “ I have many fond memories of dinners with him and the Castiglianos with the Newman Club-and the lively conversations that followed about faith and life in general. I can imagine his arrival at the Pearly Gates hearing those prized words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”My condolences
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to his family and to the Middlebury community for this great loss.
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by P. Joan (Ingram... (not verified)

I remember Professor Clifford as an outstanding professor who was instrumental in my study of European and non-Western History. Obviously, his course in Chinese history was the kick off. I also remember him years later when he came to Rochester, NY to an alumni gathering. When asked about the survival of liberal arts colleges in the world of technology and schools of technology (RPI, MIT, etc.), he responded by saying "These schools teach you how to do it, the liberal arts school teaches you why." Obviously, I have never forgotten those words, nor the man
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who spoke them. We have all lost a true scholar and gentleman.
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by Peter Wood '71 (not verified)

A wonderful and kind man; a true gentleman and scholar. Loved every class I took with him.

by Lili Dyer'87 (not verified)

I took a class in East Asian history with Prof Clifford in 1995 and found him the most engaging, kind, inspiring professor. I will never forget the two pages of typewritten comments on my first essay, and his willingness to guide me even as a non-major - a role model for the kind of teaching I do now, myself. My condolences to his family. He is one of the few professors I will never forget.

by Sumita Pahwa '98 (not verified)

Prof Clifford was my freshman seminar advisor and it was great to talk to him about Chinese history and culture; he certainly had a strong passion in what he taught and that always came across whether it was in class or the many meetings we had over my paper writing. Keeping his family in my prayers during this time of sorrow and challenge.

by Andrea Kan (not verified)

Ah, what an amazing gift Nicholas was to Middlebury, and to me. I will never forget how he was the only chieftain at the college who didn't pay me lip service when I had a very thorny issue to resolve, but took appropriate action that resulted in saving my Middlebury career. Thank you, Nicholas, I will always remember.

by Jeff Evans (not verified)

I became a fan of Nicholas Clifford's excellent reading on Librivox years ago, and always look for the books to which he has given voice. In this aspect of his service he has given a great gift to many people. I'm very sorry to hear of his passing.

by Carla Rippey (not verified)

The best gift that Middlebury College gave me was when I became a history major and I took Professor Clifford's Chinese History class. He became my academic advisor, my Senior Thesis advisor and my mentor. One of the finest gentleman I have ever met. I am u=incrediby saddened by his passing but you are right, I will keep his memory alive and I revered him and his will always be alive with me.

by Torsten Garber (not verified)

i have met nicholas clifford through his reading for librivox. He has introduce to me (who have lived in Israel for most of my life) great writers such as Anthony Throllop and many others. I'll miss his wonderful voice, great dicktion and theatrical abilities.

by nurit gamliel (not verified)

Nick and his family received me very graciously in Taipei in 1971, when I had a few days leave from the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He showed me around the northern part of Taiwan, where we were once cleared off the road to let Chiang Kai-shek's motorcade pass by. He introduced me to Peking duck, and gave me a start with the rudiments of Chinese calligraphy. It was a welcome moment, and I understand why the Middlebury community and the many others whose lives he and Deborah touched will miss him.

by Donald Coes (not verified)

Until today, I knew Professor Clifford only as a voice, the reader of many books for Librivox. What a voice! And who else could ever make the tiresome nit picking, some would say scab pickinman.of Henry James so enjoyable? I will truly miss this very generous man.

by P. Ryan (not verified)

I cannot thank Prof Clffford enough for his wonderful reading of Trollope and other classics on Librivox, which has brightened up my life immeasurably, on journeys to work, and as I redecorated my house. I am terribly sad to hear of his passing.

by Andrew Forbes (not verified)

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