David Van Tassel (1928-2000)

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, December 2000

David Van Tassel. Photo courtesy Case Western Reserve University.David Van Tassel, professor emeritus of history at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, died from heart failure on June 3, 2000. A U.S. intellectual historian by training, he became a major figure in establishing the identity and wide-ranging purposes of public history as well. As early as the 1970s—before most others in the discipline—he recognized the need for history to break new ground to arrest further losses in lay interest. Van Tassel combined his lively imagination and winning manner with an uncloistered ability to inspire confidence, to raise funds, and to plant new institutions to carry his aims beyond the academy. His achievements received both local and national recognition. From the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) he accepted the Charles Frankel Prize in 1990, and eight years later his university bestowed on him its highest academic award, the Hovorka Prize.

A native of Binghamton, New York, born in 1928, he graduated from Dartmouth in1950 and in 1955 earned his doctorate under the eminent Merle Curti at the University of Wisconsin. His dissertation, published as Recording America's Past: An Interpretation of the Development of Historical Studies in America, 1607–1884 (1960), became the first of his numerous scholarly works. In 1967 he won acclaim for American Thought in the Twentieth Century. Thereafter he edited or co-edited some 14 more volumes. Among them were Science and Society in the United States (1966); Aging and the Elderly: Humanistic Perspectives (1978); Aging, Death and the Completion of Being (1979); and Handbook of the Humanities and Aging (1992), the last being the first of its kind.

Although his career began at the University of Texas (1961–69), he taught his first two semesters as a visiting professor at Case Western Reserve University. (CWRU) Upon permanent appointment, he continued there for the next 30 years. With gracious humor, impeccable fairness, and a shrewd grasp of the possible, for a third of that time he chaired the department and occupied successively two distinguished professorships.

In 1968, however, his arrival in Cleveland came at a most inauspicious moment for his university, the history department, and the field of history itself—an era of student unrest, declining history enrollments, and university retrenchment. Undaunted, Van Tassel introduced highly successful graduate archival and museum studies programs at CWRU. In the early 1980s he also initiated, with the aid of NEH seed funds, a special PhD program in social policy history to enable professional caregivers and others to explore the development of local agencies and institutions. Extending his interest in public history beyond the immediate environment, he founded the immensely popular National History Day for the stimulation of historical activity at the high school level to match the success of national science fairs. The first event in 1974, limited to Cleveland and some surrounding counties, gathered 129 secondary school students. The most recent celebration in June 2000 drew 2,112 students from all 50 states, to College Park, Maryland. They represented 40,000 teachers and 700,000 students who had competed in local and state programs. This effort demonstrated that high school teachers and their students could handle with sophistication the tasks of historical research and public presentation while academic judges of their efforts discovered talent in unanticipated quarters.

In addition, Van Tassel pioneered in a new field of historical study: the relationship of the aging process to historical change, a matter of continuing interest as the American population ages. He convened the first conference ever devoted to that topic, with Erik Erikson being the keynote speaker, in Cleveland in 1975, and in 1981 directed a summer NEH program on "Old Age in History and Literature." For years he was the guiding light of the Humanities and Arts Council of the Gerontological Society of America, in which he was elected a fellow.

In Cleveland, Van Tassel will long be remembered for recognizing a need for historical approaches to the socially and economically depressed city, then known as the "Mistake on the Lake." With few precedents upon which to draw, he enlisted local amateurs, trained them in historical research and writing, and produced a comprehensive, highly popular study of the city: The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (1987, 1996) as well as a companion volume Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform (1986), which was designed for the academic market.

Although a scholar of few extraneous words, Van Tassel's thoughtful, avuncular, and thoroughly winning personality helped to account for his remarkable abilities as a leader, a practical-minded visionary, and an intellectual light of the first order. In all his undertakings he displayed a Dutch persistence that drew even his most reluctant colleagues into joining his latest academic venture with increased enthusiasm. Those fortunate enough to work with him will not forget his always wise counsel, sharp insights, and infectious collegiality.

David Van Tassel is survived by his wife of 50 years, Helen Liddell Van Tassel; daughters Emily Field Van Tassel of Bloomington, Indiana; Katharine Van Tassel of Cleveland Heights, Ohio; and Jeanie Swed of Missouri; his son Jonathan J. Van Tassel of State College, Pennsylvania; and his brother, Jonathan Van Tassel of Shreveport, Louisiana.

—Bertram Wyatt-Brown
University of Florida