Nicholas Rowland Clifford was born on October 12, 1930, in Radnor, Pennsylvania, to Henry and Esther Clifford. He attended Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square and later enrolled at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. 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.
After an honorable discharge from the military in 1956, Clifford pursued a doctorate in the history of British foreign policy at Harvard. During that time, he met Deborah Pickman, who later became a distinguished historian of New England. They married in 1957 and were 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 moving to Middlebury in 1966.
Nick Clifford joined the Department of History at Middlebury College as an assistant professor at the age of 35. Demonstrating a deep commitment to his scholarship, he took the Language Pledge in the summer of 1969 and studied Chinese 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. He later helped to create Chinese language studies at the College and served as dean of the summer Chinese and Japanese schools.
Holder of the William R. Kenan Professorship of History, Clifford served as the chair of the History Department for several years. His talents as an administrator were clear to all, which led to his appointment as the vice president for academic affairs and provost. He also served as the acting president of the College.
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); 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.
He wrote his novel The House of Memory (1994) after a visit to Shanghai during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Deborah and Nick Clifford coauthored The Troubled Roar of the Waters: Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927–1931 (2007), which won the 2008 Richard Hathaway Award from the Vermont Historical Society. The book detailed the catastrophic 1927 floods in Vermont.
And yet all of his stellar accomplishments say little about the direct impact that Clifford had on generations of Middlebury students. To that point, Professor John 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.”
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. Middlebury College named the Clifford Symposium after Nick Clifford when he retired in 1993. The annual event invites students, faculty, and scholars to explore a different topic at the beginning of each academic year.
Nicholas Clifford passed away on May 25, 2019; he was 88 years old.
Text for this page is taken from Nicholas Clifford’s In Memoriam page written by Middlebury’s Office of Communications and Marketing, from his obituary in the Burlington Free Press, and with contributions from Professor Jim Ralph, Rehnquist Professor of American History and Culture, dean for faculty development and research, and director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research at Middlebury.