- George C. Rable
There are outstanding professors in many colleges and universities--excellent teachers, superb scholars, and fine human beings--but John D. Unruh, Jr., was all three and much more. As many former students could testify, John Unruh was a life-changing-professor. He changed the way his students looked at the world and their own lives.
John had all the qualities that make for an outstanding teacher. He was deeply knowledgeable about the whole range of American history and could teach freshmen surveys or senior seminars or even courses in Russian or European history with aplomb. He brought to every class the energy and enthusiasm required for successful teaching. Whatever the subject, John could convince you of its central importance. Eloquent, thought-provoking, witty, and compelling are all words that come to mind in describing John Unruh in the classroom.
John took history seriously but never took himself seriously. His gentle humor and his laugh--a laugh that engaged his entire body--always let you know that for John teaching and history itself was deeply enjoyable and always a human story. Dealing with complex and important issues never meant neglecting the personal dimension. The great historian Richard Hofstadter once defined an intellectual as one who was both pious and playful with ideas, and that definition nicely recaptures John's approach to teaching. He was passionate about history, carried deep convictions of his own about public questions, but was also unfailingly fair-minded. Students learned to see history as a rich and complex tapestry that never taught simple lessons yet helped us transcend our parochial concerns and step outside our own time to acquire a deeper understanding of historical forces, actors, and events. In short, we learned how to look at the world in a variety of ways from the perspectives of often long-dead people who once too had blood coursing through their veins. We had to wrestle with questions and problems that were both different from our own yet also timeless.
John Unruh was an inspiring teacher, but in the best sense, he was also a consummate professional. His lectures were superb because they were obviously well prepared, the product of wide reading, careful study, and continuous rethinking. He often introduced the most recent scholarship even into lower division courses in ways that helped students grasp the exciting new questions historians were wrestling with.
John believed in pouring on the work---anything to make students read, think, and write. In an introductory American history survey class he required two ten-page historiographical essays that would have made many graduate students quail. We had a textbook and two supplemental books, had to read a book of our choice (complete with signed honor pledge), and also dip into a western newspaper on microfilm. And then he decided we needed to have both a take-home essay and an in-class objective final exam.
But however much students might stagger under what seemed an unimaginable work load, we could never hold that against John whose goodness and kindness were just as obvious to everyone as his high standards. And I think we knew that John never expected anything from his students that he did not demand of himself. John read our papers with great care, offered extensive comments in small but neat handwriting, and even checked our footnotes. I well recall late one Friday night seeing the light on in John's East Hall office, a dramatic illustration of a deep commitment to his calling.
We history majors slowly learned a bit about that large, unfinished dissertation on the overland migrations to Oregon and California. But none of us, and I doubt few of John’s colleagues, grasped the prodigious research, the path-breaking analysis, or the graceful prose that would make the completed dissertation and later book an enduring classic in western history. While cleaning carpets in the library one summer, I ran across John in a carrel banging away on his typewriter. He talked with me briefly about the project that he at times called his "albatross."
Of course John Unruh also had the final requirement of the great teacher: he enjoyed working with students. His patience and good cheer were as noteworthy as his seemingly impossible standards. He expected each person's best work each time--there was no resting on your laurels. In the spring of 1971, the students enrolled in John's colloquium on the American West received a syllabus through campus mail before the course began. For the first class session, we were required to read a substantial book and one article on the Spanish Borderlands frontier--both I recall nearly as dry as the borderlands themselves. We were to bring a three-page analysis of these readings to the first class session. There would be a similar amount of work required each week--approximately equal to the demands of a graduate course. With a wry comment in the syllabus, John gave students the option of skipping the reading and paper for one week. Needless to say, many students skipped the first week's reading and paper. Carefully studying the syllabus, however, I decided to "save" my week off for much later in the semester. I chose the week-twelve session and as that class ended, John collected the papers as usual. He asked me where mine was. I said, "Oh, Professor Unruh, this is the week I chose not to do the paper." With a look disappointment, he quickly remarked, "I expected you to do all the assignments." A compliment perhaps, but I must admit feeling like a pretty sorry apprentice historian at that point.
Yet like all great teachers, John Unruh could see things in students that they did not see in themselves. One day, he stopped me after class and suggested graduate school, and I’m sure I had to ask, "What is graduate school?" I was a first-generation college student, and the idea of becoming a college professor, much less actually writing history, surely lay beyond the scope of my limited imagination. But that conversation changed my life. John offered a bleak and realistic assessment of the academic job market yet still encouraged me to pursue an academic career if that was truly my choice. He guided me through the process of selecting and applying for graduate schools, and I needed a lot of help. He went over drafts of my personal statements for the applications and at one point gently but firmly and correctly suggested I was completely off track. One day, he casually suggested applying to Louisiana State University to work with T. Harry Williams who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Huey Long. In the meantime, I had slowly developed an interest in the Reconstruction period and would complete a long and I fear rather tedious senior honors thesis on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson under John Unruh's careful direction. I still value the six pages of closely written comments that John offered on that effort--typical of the careful attention, prodding suggestions, and warm encouragement that he offered on many occasions.
I ended up going to L.S.U. and working with Williams, but in the midst of studying for the Ph.D comprehensive exams, I received a call from Bluffton College Professor Rick Hite informing me that John Unruh had died after unsuccessful surgery for a brain tumor. He was only thirty-eight years old and would never see his masterwork, The Plains Across, in print. John's friends and students still miss his fine mind, gentle humor, and warn encouragement, and it is still hard to think of John Unruh without a feeling of ineffable sadness. In my study is a laminated article about John that appeared in the Lima News seventeen years after his death--his photograph from that article stares out at me at every day, a silent reminder that I had better get to work and give it my best. Hardly a week goes by when something I am reading, a meeting with a student, or a conversation with a colleague does not remind me of John Unruh. The legacy of his teaching--representing higher education at its best--surely lives on however imperfectly in his students.