Robert H. Bremner (1917-2002)

Roy T. Wortman, February 2006

Robert H. Bremner, professor emeritus, Ohio State University, died on September 7, 2002. He is survived by his wife, Catherine, and two daughters, Ann and Sue.

He received his BA from Baldwin Wallace College, and the MA and PhD from Ohio State University. After civilian service in the U.S. War Department and the American Red Cross in World War II, he taught in the history department of Ohio State University from 1946 to 1980, focusing on social thought, social welfare, philanthropy, and poverty.

Yet Bob Bremner was not a narrow specialist, and had an amazing catholicity of interests to include literature, art, architecture, towns, and cities and, always, their people. Among his many publications are From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (1956), American Philanthropy (1960), Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History (1970), and The Public Good: Philanthropy and Welfare in the Civil War (1980). His many awards included fellowships from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University, and the Rockefeller Foundation. For his graduate and undergraduate teaching he received Ohio State's Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Bremner formally retired in 1980, but continued to research, write, and always stay connected to his students even through his last days. In 1989, as a tribute to his importance in their lives, Bremner's graduate students dedicated a festschrift in his honor, entitled For the General Welfare: Essays in Honor of Robert H. Bremner. Bob Bremner contributed to the historical profession, serving on the editorial board of the American Historical Review, chairing the Social Welfare History Group, serving as president of the Ohio Academy of History, and was a member of President's Science Advisory Committee, and the Panel on Federal Programs for Youth of the National Academy of Science.

For all of his professional accomplishments he was, above all else, a modest and humble man who was always interested in the welfare of his graduate students. Never an entrepreneurial academic "scrambler" concerned with status, self-promotion, or bathing in the glory of his own ego, Bob Bremner was a superb and profoundly dedicated teacher who would have wanted to be remembered for that more than anything else. He directed 40 graduate students toward their doctorate in history. He was a professor's professor who encouraged, inspired, and supported his graduate students' endeavors with energy, wisdom, insight, patience, and, finally, deep humanity. His family reported that in his last days in the hospital he asked about his students by name. He and his wife and life companion, Kay, never forgot their students, maintaining an interest in those who had long finished their graduate work at OSU, following their careers and their lives with affection, letters, gifts, and cards. They entertained small legions of graduate students at their home, and in numerous restaurant or professional convention outings which became joyous, informal seminars on industrial and public architecture, city planning, the history of Ohio small towns and villages, and on such diversions as neighborhood taverns as social history.

As a teacher he was especially skilled in explication of text: to listen to him find new insights in William Graham Sumner, analyze the broader significance of Henry George, explicate Thorstein Veblen on work and craftsmanship, or analyze Biblical notions of philanthropy were treats for his students' minds. He loved the term "turning a phrase"; he was a master stylist, and his criticism of written drafts gave ample evidence of concision and wit, always leaving room for students to expand, explore, and enhance their research and writing. His classroom demeanor was calm, modest, unassuming, and self-possessed, but beneath that gentle exterior resided a mind of steel and the muted strength of a classroom lion. In presenting ideas to his students he would read a particular passage several times, with different emphases on certain words or phrases, creating italics with his voice to make a point about interpretation. A gifted lecturer and seminar leader, he was strongest in substantive analysis and downplayed flamboyant theatrics, but always saved room for subtle and muted humor and irony which he expressed with a twinkle in his eyes and a calm and at times mischievous smile on his face. Bob's graduate students developed a loyalty to this gentle and great professor that can best be described as tenacious, even ferocious. He never forgot his students, and, in the circularity of life, we shall never forget him.

—Roy T. Wortman, Kenyon College