George H. Mayer (1920-99)

Robert P. Ingalls, March 2000

George H. Mayer, who taught history for over 50 years, died suddenly on November 15, 1999. During his long career at Purdue University and the University of South Florida, he mentored countless students, many of whom became lifelong friends. Born in California, he earned a BA and membership in Phi Beta Kappa at Pomona College in 1941. He received an MA from Claremont College the following year and then worked as a civilian at an army depot. In 1948 he completed a PhD in history at the University of Minnesota.

Mayer's first book, The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson, received high praise and remains in print today. His other publications include The United States and the Twentieth Century, a textbook co-authored with Walter O. Forster, and The Republican Party, 1854–1964. He also wrote an essay, "The Republican Party, 1932–1952," for the four-volume History of U.S. Political Parties, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Mayer began his teaching career in 1946 at Purdue University, where he remained until 1965, when he moved to Sarasota, Florida. There he initially taught at New College, recently established as a small private college. In 1969, he joined the history department at the University of South Florida, then a new institution in the state university system. When New College became part of the University of South Florida in 1975, Mayer served briefly as acting provost of New College and then resumed teaching at the University of South Florida. He continued to teach fulltime until his retirement in 1998 at the age of 76.

Known for his erudition and generosity, Mayer engaged and encouraged students in ways that distinguished him throughout his career. Something of a Renaissance man in an age of specialization, he offered a great variety of courses, ranging from U.S. intellectual and political history to modern European history and the history of western philosophy. He also developed a course focusing on the Mideast. A colleague once commented that, given the breadth of Mayer's knowledge, he could have walked into any history class and had something relevant to say. His global interests attracted him to the Fulbright program, and he was awarded several teaching fellowships in India and Malaysia. During 1968–69, he served as director of the American Studies Research Center in Hyderabad, India. His teaching won him numerous awards, and last year Purdue University recognized him as one of the "Great Teachers" in the history of the university.

Mayer's extraordinary support for students included financial assistance, especially for graduate study. With no children of his own, he generously contributed personal funds to make it possible for undergraduate students to pursue advanced degrees. In one notable case, he subsidized an MBA at Harvard University for a Turkish student he had met during a visit to Turkey.

At the time of his death, Mayer had just returned from two months in the mountains of New Hampshire, and he was planning a trip to the Mideast as well as preparing to teach a course next semester. Until the end, he lived life to the fullest, enjoying the company of students and his many friends.

—Robert P. Ingalls
University of South Florida