- Von Hardesty
As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children. Psalm 103: 15-17 (NKJV)
John D. Unruh Jr. came to Bluffton College as a fulltime member of the history department in 1967. His tenure proved to be all too brief, ending abruptly with his death in January 1976, a victim of brain cancer. While at Bluffton, John joined a worthy tradition of historians, which included C. Henry Smith and Robert S. Kreider. Prior to his death, the name of John Unruh was often mentioned as a bright light in a new generation of historians in Mennonite higher education. The Bluffton College community indeed took pride in the fact that John had taken up residence in their midst. He brought a matchless enthusiasm for both teaching and scholarship. And, for a modest salary, John was willing to accept a formidable teaching load and myriad faculty committee assignments, even as he worked tirelessly on his dissertation. John and his wife, Ellie, built a new home in a stand of woods on the edge of Bluffton, a move that suggested to many that their tenure at Bluffton might indeed be long term. That same house offered a welcome and secluded enclave for the hard-working John Unruh.
John made an enduring impact on all who had the unique opportunity to cross his path. Faculty colleagues knew him as a talented teacher and creative leader in the daunting task of curriculum reform, then a huge and all-consuming priority for the college. The student body at Bluffton College, especially those willing to wrestle with the rigors of a “John Unruh course,” encountered an inspiring lecturer and mentor. For history majors in research seminars, John was a gentle taskmaster, insisting on exacting standards and encouraging optimal performance with “friendly persuasion” rather than intimidation. Like boot camp, the student emerged from the ordeal with sharpened skills and an enhanced sense of academic purpose.
John’s personal ideals, most notably his peace witness, reflected his Anabaptist upbringing in South Dakota. A beloved teacher, he often spoke in all-campus convocations, which allowed a wider group of students to observe first hand his enthusiasm for history and his grasp of current affairs. And he was a great storyteller. In his courses, John mirrored the academic excellence to be found at Bluffton College in the 1970s, a testimony to the fact that a small liberal arts college could offer a creative context for learning and personal growth.
On a cold winter day in January of 1976, news reached Bluffton from a Toledo hospital that John had not survived an operation to remove a cancerous brain tumor. The sudden revelation of his death descended on the campus as a thunderclap. Few, in fact, had known of his health crisis or the necessary and fateful surgery that followed. Echoing the Psalmist, one could say that John Unruh's years at Bluffton had been as a "flower in the field."
In the aftermath of his passing, words were difficult to muster to express the profound sense of loss that enveloped the Bluffton community. The college held a memorial service on Tuesday, January 20, at First Mennonite Church. Rev. Walter Gering presided over the service, which included a meditation by Lloyd L. Ramseyer and brief remarks by Elmer Neufeld and myself. The memorial service offered everyone a formal, if painful, setting to celebrate John’s life. Later, John Unruh was buried in Salem Mennonite cemetery near his family home in South Dakota.
This essay offers me a second chance to reflect on the legacy of my former colleague and friend, John Unruh. At the memorial service in 1976, as I dimly remember, I delivered a hurriedly prepared and rather inarticulate eulogy. Rather than attempt again to fathom in words the complex and emotion-laden meaning of an untimely death, I decided for this essay to sketch a portrait of John Unruh as a person, as I knew him in the 1970s.
I came to Bluffton in the fall of 1970 from Ohio State University, where I had just qualified as a candidate for the Ph.D. in history (all but dissertation, as they say). My general area of study had been in European history with a specialization in Russian history. In fact, I had taught briefly at Bluffton in 1966-1967, the year before John Unruh arrived on campus. Ahead of me loomed the prospect of full-time teaching and the daunting task of completing my dissertation. John welcomed me to the history department, expressing great satisfaction that he now had a colleague to assume responsibility for the European history courses. We planned to share the burden of the general education program, still traditional in every respect with prescribed courses such as History of Civilization.
To my delight, I discovered that John and I felt the same way about the role of history in the liberal arts. We were, at heart, traditionalists in a decade calling for radical change, especially in general education. But with John at the helm, ironically, the history department played no small role in recasting the form, even content, of the general education program. We found ourselves bending with the winds of change, willingly seeking to find ways to insert "choice" and "relevance" into the old curriculum. But, on the trailing edge of all our labors was the conscious effort to retain high academic standards. John himself had participated in the experimental "interterms" of the late 1960s, so he possessed a keen sense of how best to recast things in a creative way. This was the context, the world in which we found ourselves in the 1970s.
The history department was housed in East Hall, a venerable, if somewhat derelict, building that had hosted more than one academic entity over the decades. Once a family residence, it had been purchased by the college in 1910. The Witmarsum Theological Seminary had been headquartered there until it’s closing in 1931. Later the music department migrated to East Hall until they acquired their own building. It also had a brief life as an overflow men’s residence hall, affectionately known as "Lehman Frat." Finally, East Hall had been converted for use by the history department. Spartan and drafty, the building stood on the edge of the campus, at the corner of Spring Street and College (now University) Avenue. The large rambling house did offer us a commons of sorts, a room set aside for seminars and meetings.
John Unruh occupied an office on the second floor. The rooms were large with high ceilings and windows. He did much to make his office a serene place for study and work. The walls were adorned with Frederic Remington prints, a reminder of his affinity for the history of the American West. Always at the edge of perfection, in sharp contrast to his fellow inhabitants at East Hall, he maintained a clean and tidy desk. Everything appeared to be at right angles, with no confusion on what should be assigned to the "in" or "out" boxes. His office contained many books, but the office library always reflected two avenues of work: titles either related to his dissertation research or to his classes for the semester. In those days before the advent of email, we used the ubiquitous Bluffton College green or yellow memo pads for campus communications. The bulletin board at East Hall, as at other faculty offices, was festooned with messages typed or written out on these colorful notes.
Old wooden chairs and desks were the norm at East Hall. The chairs were not all that comfortable, but they did possess a certain appeal as historical artifacts. I remember, for example, that one chair in my office on the second floor once belonged to former college president S. K. Mosiman, or so I was told. Even as chairman, John did not enjoy upscale or modern furnishings; we all lived in what could be described as a rough-hewn equality. One prominent feature of John’s office was his personal typewriter, a late model manual type, as I remember. He was legendary for his typing skill, most remarkable in an era when typing was still viewed as a female-dominated realm. He once told me that he could type an average of 125-130 words per minute. Upon entering East Hall, you often found John at work upstairs. Even in the evenings, light from his office was visible through the wood spindles of the staircase. You often heard the rapid tapping of his typewriter, punctuated with the distinctive sound of the return bell.
Rick Hite was a welcome addition to our company of historians at East Hall. Always popular with students for his lively lectures, Rick was active in shaping the content of the Historical Issues classes. Like the rest of us, Rick looked upon East Hall with affection, taking consolation in the fact that his office was spacious and accommodating. As a colleague, Rick possessed a great sense of humor. Best of all, he shared John’s high purpose when it came to teaching. Eventually, Rick abandoned the academy for a career in the private sector, but his contributions to Bluffton College were substantial in that decade.
The fourth member of our department, Ray Hamman, had an office in College Hall, where he directed the Educational Media Center. Ray began teaching full time the same year John Unruh came to Bluffton. He deeply respected John, viewing him as a mentor when it came to teaching, a consequence of several team-taught courses they had crafted in the late 1960s. Ray taught the pivotal American Political Process (APP) course, which at the time was an essential component for the education major. If separated from us physically, Ray was very much a part of our academic program in history, though he had to walk across Riley Creek to East Hall for our periodic departmental meetings.
One day Ray won a spirited round of applause from his departmental colleagues in East Hall. He had been wrestling with the problem of chronic tardiness in his APP class in College Hall. When repeated admonitions failed to correct the errant behavior, he decided upon a radical stratagem: one day he closed and locked the classroom door, leaving outside a Biblical parable in bold print for the late-arriving students to read. Ray selected the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25: 1-13, which tells the story of the five wise and the five foolish virgins. The latter had no oil for their lamps at the marriage ceremony. And the key passage read: "And while they went to buy [the oil], the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went with him to the marriage: and the door was shut."
As a colleague, I retain fond memories of long conversations with Ray, especially in his spacious office area in College Hall. He displayed prominently on the shelf above his desk a bottle (still in its original box) of "Hadacol," the bogus all-purpose patent medicine from the 1950s, what some aptly called the "apotheosis of nostrums." I appreciated Ray’s sense of humor. Moreover, he enjoyed a warm relationship with students, in part for his work in establishing the "Freshman Olympics." No less important, John Unruh appreciated Ray enormous contribution to the department and the college. Once John wrote a long letter to Dean Mark Houshower defending the size of our department, which then included Ray Hamman as a fourth member. There had been complaints by some that the History department was overstaffed in an era of budget cuts and retrenchment. John’s eloquent apologia for his hard-working department prevailed and we survived intact.
East Hall had one sociologist in residence, John Mecartney. Professor Mecartney, by any conventional measure, was something of an eccentric, but a beloved faculty colleague—principled, cheerful and caring, a dedicated social activist. He approached college teaching not as an end, but as just one facet in his lifelong quest for social justice, the source of his personal identity. He declared openly that he was a "democratic socialist," which certainly set him apart. If Bluffton in those days acquired a reputation for being a bastion of "radical professors," as it often did, it could be traced to John Mecartney (the other widespread myth was that we were a fundamentalist Christian college). In reality, John was very much a man of the old left, lacking any of the nihilistic traits of the New Left, then at the cutting edge of the political and cultural transformation of the 1960s and the 1970s.
Mecartney’s office was a peculiar precinct in East Hall, disorderly, filled to the ceiling with books, magazines, and papers. Yet, upon request, John could find some arcane article or a college memo without difficulty; somehow he possessed an internal finding aid for everything in his domain. We often theorized that if East Hall ever collapsed (always a possibility, we speculated), it would take place along a fault line in the rear of the building, beginning at the entrance to Mecartney's office.
In 1974, I remember encountering Michael Harrington, the famed socialist writer (author of The Other America), seated rather uncomfortably in a narrow opening in the corner of Mecartney's crowded office. Harrington had come to deliver a convocation lecture. In retrospect, bringing Harrington to campus by John Mecartney extended an old tradition: Norman Thomas once visited the Bluffton campus in the depths of the Great Depression.
During the early 1970s, John and Ellie worked diligently to build their new house in the countryside. There was no small amount of sweat labor required to complete the project. I remember volunteering once to assist John with the sanding of the floor and door moldings. Again, I was impressed with the care and intensity John brought to all tasks, including this mundane one. His new house benefited from his passion for perfection and attention to detail. In retrospect, it is amazing that he could attend to overseeing house construction, even as he taught a full load and worked on his dissertation.
John was a sports fan. As he once told me, being a sports fan allowed you the rare context to embrace openly irrational behavior without hurting anyone! His two heroes were Arnold Palmer and Ted Williams, the famed golfer and baseball player, respectively. When it came to athletic teams, he was drawn to the Boston Celtics and Boston Red Sox, the KU Jayhawks, and, most of all, to the UCLA Bruins. Coached by the legendary John Wooden, UCLA in the 1970s dominated college basketball. John followed their exploits with intense interest. When John Wooden actually visited the Bluffton campus, John was deputized to pick him up at the Toledo airport—this became a cherished moment for John during all his years at Bluffton. In retrospect, John Unruh as a teacher mirrored some of the stellar qualities Wooden displayed as a coach: a quiet competence, humility, exacting standards, and the unique capacity to prompt others to pursue excellence.
John took me golfing on more than one occasion. We also played intramural basketball as a faculty team. But the most memorable outing for me was the one-time bird watching excursion he arranged. I was a genuine novice, quite unknowing when it came to this part of nature. With binoculars in hand, I followed John around the college farm, where we sighted, to my amazement, an extraordinary variety of bird species. As in so many times in our friendship, I was the student and John was the teacher.
Space prevents here a full accounting of John Unruh's myriad interests outside the classroom. However, Mel Goering, a former philosophy professor and longtime friend, has left us with the best short summary, a retrospective piece he wrote for Scope, the college periodical, in April 1976. Mel reported that he and John participated in many golf outings. He found John to be a congenial, if disciplined, companion on the links. For these occasions, John routinely wore a distinctive red hat and sunglasses. There was always a predictable warm up ritual and the use of a special golf ball for putting. Predictably, John was a perfect scorekeeper. At home, he also had a great love of parlor games such as Yahtzee and Scribbage. And for social occasions (something I remember fondly), he made excellent use of an elaborate technique for making popcorn, always served in lavish portions. I also remember that John’s days were punctuated with televised baseball, basketball, and football games, whenever his busy schedule allowed. He enjoyed music, especially Beethoven, and he and Ellie attended concerts in Toledo, often joined by fellow enthusiasts from the faculty. Finally, something few knew at the time, John was an avid devotee of James Bond movies.
When John appeared on campus, he drove from his home in one of the most rakish automobiles of that era: a burnt orange 1968 Dodge Charger, with a black interior and fully equipped. This early incarnation of a "Muscle Car" is best remembered in the 1971 movie "Bullitt," starring Steve McQueen. That milestone movie included a dramatic chase scene: McQueen, at the wheel of a green Mustang, pursues two villains driving a Dodge Charger—one very much like John Unruh's car, except for the color (the bad guys in the movie drove a sleek black Charger, appropriately).
Ellie told me that they had purchased the Dodge Charger in Pandora shortly after their arrival in Bluffton in 1967. John was hesitant at first, thinking the bright orange color was at odds with the lifestyle of a college professor, especially one at a Mennonite-related college. Ellie disagreed, thought it was a wonderful car, and she ultimately prevailed. I don’t know what the reaction of students may have been to John’s “muscle car,” but I assume it only added to his stature on campus. Parked next to the ancient façade of East Hall, then covered with fading and broken white shingles, the Dodge Charger evoked a contrasting sense of modernity, the notion that the history faculty at Bluffton, or at least one of their company, had good taste when it came to automobiles.
There was one episode early in my tenure at Bluffton that brought John and me together in a special way, deepening our evolving friendship in a context of shared research and writing. In the summer of 1971, John and I were laboring away on our dissertations in adjoining carrels in the Musselman Library basement. During one break I mentioned to John that I had come across in my study a curious link of a Russian revolutionary to South Dakota. I told him the story of Sergei Degaev, a one-time terrorist and agent provocateur who managed to find his way to the faculty of the University of South Dakota. On the run from the tsarist police and terrorist assassins, he had changed his name to Alexander Pell and earned a doctorate in mathematics at Johns Hopkins University. John volunteered to seek out some data on the clandestine life of Degaev-Pell in South Dakota, which became part of the research for our jointly written article, "The Enigma of Degaev-Pell," South Dakota History (1972). This became a welcome diversion for us from our dissertation travails that year. In subsequent years, I am happy to report, historians—especially in Russian studies—have made excellent use of this research. John revealed his competitive edge with this article, expressing great disappointment when our article did not win the award for the outstanding research article to appear in the quarterly for 1972. For me, there was the delight to work so harmoniously with a friend and master historian, and this would be my first publication as a historian.
In 1972, John played a key role in launching the Human Explorations Program (HUEX). As an experimental program, HUEX set Bluffton College on a new path in general education. We abandoned the older pattern of prescribed courses in favor of a more flexible and elective scheme. The times indeed were hostile to anything mandated, especially in higher education. We debated the meaning of the liberal arts education at length. For the history faculty, John felt there were fresh opportunities to teach courses with greater relevance to modern life, though we all expressed fears that the pursuit of "relevance" might give birth to some zany experiments at the students’ expense. For good or ill, HUEX became a crucible to test out some of these ideas. The faculty in all departments scrambled to fashion new courses to fit into one of the HUEX areas of "exploration." We all boldly leapt into this new world.
As I remember, John taught the experimental course, "Stalking the Eastern Bird," with Maurice Kaufmann; this course garnered wide respect for its solid subject matter content and innovative approach. This HUEX course, along with Delbert Gratz’s mountain-climbing class, allowed students to break out of the cloistered environment of the campus. We all endeavored to participate actively in this new program, often with great satisfaction, but the hidden costs in time and energy were high. If John had lived, I wonder where he would have come out on the matter of general education reform, for Bluffton a burning issue of the 1970s. Whatever his ultimate perspective might have been, he demonstrated a great willingness to experiment. And we willingly followed him into this uncharted academic domain.
There were several occasions when John and I worked together in teaching—-for example, one fascinating study of utopian communities where, among other things, we made a field trip to the historic Zoar site near Canton. There were several other courses, where we joined forces, making full use of my meager background in American history. These team-teaching outings allowed me to observe John’s legendary teaching style up close. And I admired his humility and willingness to give his team-teaching partner optimal leeway in the selection of duties. When it came to reading research papers or making fateful decisions on grades, John was deliberate in the extreme: we each read the blue books, attached a tentative grade, and then compared our results. Wherever there was a divergence of opinion, we went through another round of reading, evaluation, and discussion. I remember sitting at his kitchen table going through this necessary, if tortuous, process. We stacked the blue books by grade, to see the distribution of grades. Wherever there was some hidden intimation of knowledge in a blue book essay or a research paper, John asked if we had been fair? On failing grades, no one was ever "cast into outer darkness" without a careful assessment. Mercy abounded, but throughout the process there were baseline standards to maintain, as mirrored in the answers we had worked out in advance for each question. John's love of teaching, his innate sense of fairness, and his deeply felt regard for students still linger vividly in my memory. We can only hope at the Last Judgment all humanity will receive similar thoughtful consideration in the review of our virtues and vices.
One interesting incident came with our team-teaching of a pioneering course on what we then called "Afro-American History." For this highly experimental course, we discovered belatedly that that we were playing out in the alternating classroom lectures a "Good Cop, Bad Cop" sequence—and apparently at my expense, or so it seemed to John. Innocently, John had been assigned responsibility for lectures on what one might call the bright side, for example a series of presentations on the abolition movement. By contrast, I took on an inordinate number of lectures dealing with darker themes, for example “pro-slavery arguments” and the "Ku Klux Klan." When we discerned this pattern, he took steps to make sure I got some more uplifting topics for lectures. What struck me in this minor incident was how caring and thoughtful John was about my role in the class. His concern was highly exaggerated, of course.
When the Black Student Union went out on strike that same semester, they came to us to explain that the Afro-American class had been exempted from their strike. They expressed appreciation for our efforts to offer such a course; and we were assured that we were not part of the "problem." Then and now, one could express some cynicism about their motives, seeing this overture as a self-serving move, a way to avoid a failing grade. Still, I think the gesture was genuine. No doubt John’s reputation on campus for fairness and teaching excellence helped to legitimize our work in this experimental course. Oddly, this course later played an unexpected role in my professional life when I assumed my duties as a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. In the early 1980s, the Museum decided to fashion a new "Black Wings" exhibit. Once my supervisor at the Museum learned of my earlier work in the Afro-American history, he appointed me curator for the new Black Wings exhibit. That Bluffton course cast a long shadow over my life, and a very positive one, I might add.
Since John and I were both working on our dissertations, we made more than one trip to Columbus for necessary research, often traveling to the city in his sleek orange Dodge Charger. On these outings, I grew to appreciate John’s exhaustive approach to research, where he left no stone unturned when it came to seeking out historical data. When we visited the Ohio Historical Society, for example, he appeared with a set of threadbare index cards—each one keyed to an important historical journal. As he made his rounds, John checked off with a red pencil each card as he perused the periodical for new articles or book reviews relevant to his dissertation study. In the 1970s, most graduate students found themselves at work on rather narrow dissertation topics, a manifestation of the increasing specialization that had enveloped our discipline in that decade. "Big picture" histories were routinely avoided, except by the most senior and established historians. But here was the youthful John Unruh preparing to write a magisterial and myth-shattering account of the overland migrations, arguably a key episode in shaping the course of American history. Talent, ambition, and opportunity merged in a powerful synergy with John’s outstanding dissertation study.
John once told me that his goal was to write his dissertation in such a way that he could simultaneously submit it to his graduate adviser and to a potential publisher. This was a most ambitious undertaking, to say the least. In 1975, he mailed off a weighty manuscript of 880 pages, in two copies: one to Clifford Griffin at the University of Kansas and the other to the University of Illinois Press. The sad aspect of this story is that the dissertation had been mailed off just as John faced the onset of disturbing symptoms for a fatal disease.
Ellie Unruh played no small role in bringing this ambitious project to fruition, offering personal support and even accompanying John as a research assistant to the Yale archives. Her critical role, in the end, came with the daunting task of typing the dissertation into a pristine manuscript. To this end, Ellie and John employed the college’s new IBM with magnetic tapes, then housed in the Alumni Office in Riley Court, to type and print out the final version. I remember visiting them one evening as they worked on the typing. John took great delight in showing me how the sophisticated IBM worked. This was the climactic phase of John’s ten-year research project. One should add that their use of the IBM was done with great integrity, at no cost to the college: they were most scrupulous about buying their own tapes and paper for this typing marathon at Riley Court.
The events surrounding John’s illness and death deserve some brief comment. It is important to remember that the whole crisis unfolded in a remarkable short time frame: John had entered the Toledo hospital in mid-January, with the operation taking place on January 16, 1976; he died two days later, on January 18; and the memorial service at First Mennonite Church followed on January 20. The breathless pace of these melancholy events left Bluffton College in a state of shock and sorrow.
For John and Ellie, first of all, the fast-moving crisis afforded little time to make peace with the reality of a life-threatening disease and then deal with all the critical decisions that had to be made. I can only imagine the depths of their agony, and the enormous courage it took to face the crisis. I was not privy to this painful drama, but I am aware of the fact that the Unruhs did decide to alert a small circle of friends and family in advance, and on campus Elmer Neufeld, a long time friend and adviser.
In the course of events, I found myself invited into that small circle on the eve of John’s operation. John called me on a Sunday afternoon, asking cryptically if he could stop by my house and chat with me that very day. The precise date is now uncertain in my mind, but it may have been in early January, or perhaps earlier. His purpose had been unstated on the phone, but there had been an unmistakable sense of urgency in his voice that Sunday. When he arrived that evening, alone, we sat down in my living room. His first words have faded from memory--there may have been some pleasantries exchanged--but I remember John quickly describing his condition and the need for an operation in the near term to remove a tumor from his brain.
He told me that the first symptoms of the disease were evident in his motor skills, the sudden and inexplicable loss of his rapid typing skills. This alarming loss of coordination had sparked him to undergo medical tests. Only then was the brain tumor discovered. John told me all these things in a calm demeanor. Finally, when I asked about the prognosis for recovery, he explained that such tumors were not all alike, and there was one type that was amenable to surgery. Yet, he warned, the risks were high that he would not survive the disease.
He then changed the subject, saying that he had a huge favor to ask me. In the case of death, he asked, would I assist Ellie in shepherding his dissertation into publication? He told me of the status of the manuscript, that it was in the hands of an editor at the University of Illinois Press. Since I had read portions of his manuscript, he felt I was highly qualified to oversee this final and critical stage of the process. There were no specific instructions, just the appeal to watch over this project that had been a part of his life for a decade. I was humbled by his request, even a bit intimidated, but I quickly agreed to work with Ellie to assure that all editorial requests from Illinois were met promptly. Still stunned by the news of his upcoming operation, I offered in that fleeting conversation as much encouragement as I could muster. I sensed that John was putting his life in order, and he had asked me to assist him.
In the days that followed, we remained in contact and the context for our conversations, if altered, remained warm and engaging. As January unfolded, news reached the campus at large that John had been hospitalized in Toledo. Many were in contact with John at that point. My last conversation with John took place on Friday, January 16, when I drove up to see him in the hospital. We had a long interlude of time alone. He was in good spirits, and we had a chance to talk about his forthcoming book, shared teaching experiences, and about the important things in life. It was a special encounter, the last time for us to express deeply felt thoughts and feelings. In two short days, my colleague and friend had passed away, never recovering from his surgery. All who met John in that critical time were impressed with his personal courage, sense of purpose, and caring for others.
After the passing of time, Ellie and I renewed our contact with the University of Illinois Press. We worked with Richard Wentworth and Elizabeth Dulany, the managing editor, to assure that the manuscript was on track. In one letter to Dulany, I expressed again the pivotal concern that the "narrative remain intact" and that the "scholarly apparatus that accompanies the text be preserved." I was fully aware that editors are often tempted to make radical, even whimsical, changes to a manuscript. I wished to spare John’s extraordinary book from such a fate. I was anxious to see what Illinois had planned for John’s opus, even as I assisted in the search for potential illustrations. At the same time, I nominated the projected new title, The Plains Across, for a publication award at the Ohio Academy of History.
My fears concerning the editorial process at Illinois proved to be unfounded. I soon learned of their high regard for John’s manuscript. In one letter from Elizabeth Dulany, designed "to allay any possible apprehensions," she told us that she did not "cut out, reorganize, rewrite, or in any substantive way alter any part of Mr. Unruh’s work." What changes they did propose were largely cosmetic, for example the transformation of chapter 1 into an introduction and the combination of chapters 2 and 3 into the new chapter 1. Otherwise, the manuscript was unaltered, except for a simplified format for the numerous footnotes. Ellie and I were now reassured that John’s manuscript would pass through the gauntlet of editorial review essentially unscathed. Later that spring we read the galleys for the new book with great delight. In that same letter from Dulany, there was a most unusual endorsement of John’s scholarship and writing skill. She concluded her letter, "In my 22 years in this business I don’t think I have ever had the pleasure of working on such a perfect manuscript, perfect in every way: exhaustive research, exciting, innovative scholarship, flawless style, impeccable typescript (Mrs. Unruh's I note). As a matter of fact, since I couldn’t bring myself to put a red pencil to the original manuscript but worked from a Xerox, the original is preserved in tact and will be sent back to you eventually."
The book reviews for The Plains Across in 1979 echoed the enthusiasm of the editors at Illinois. Ray Allen Billington, then the leading historian of the American West, wrote in a Washington Post book review (April 1, 1979) that The Plains Across was the "best book yet written on the overland migrations." Moreover, he noted, the myths of the overland migrations, many fashioned by Francis Parkman and Hollywood, fall "like dominoes" in the book. The famed historian noted as well John’s "innovative scholarship" and his engaging narrative "rich in anecdotes and informative vignettes." Taking note that John had died prior to the appearance of The Plains Across, Billington concluded he could not have erected "a finer or more enduring monument to himself."
We who knew John are haunted by the fact The Plains Across, by circumstance, became an epitaph rather than the harbinger for what surely would have been a brilliant career. One can only speculate on what historical projects John would have pursued in the decades of the 1980s and the 1990s, if he had lived. Moreover, I often muse about how John would have reacted to the changing world after 1976? How would this devotee of Bluffton's then state-of-the-art IBM typewriter/printer have reacted the marvels of the computer age? In turn, how would he have made use of the internet in his approach to research? As a person deeply interested in the political affairs, how would he have reacted to the turbulent events of recent times? Also, the thought crosses my mind that more than one institution of higher learning might have sought him out for their history program. On a personal level, I am sure John would have followed with great interest the recent successes of the University of Kansas' stellar football and basketball teams. Such musings only add to one’s sense of loss at the mention of John Unruh's name.
Yet, we should be attentive to another dimension of John Unruh's career: his influence on a host of students. This may be the most enduring measure of his legacy. I ask, how many students preparing for a career in education were inspired by John’s love of history? And, indeed, some of his students went on to graduate work in history. Among them, I could mention George Rable, an award-winning Civil War Historian at the University of Alabama. But he is not alone, for certain, among the Bluffton students of the 1970s who have pursued academic careers. Whatever their numbers or disciplines, these students of John Unruh offer a living legacy to a remarkable and worthy life.