In Memoriam: Martin Ridge
Susan Wladaver-Morgan, March 2004
From the In Memoriam column of the March 2004 Perspectives
Martin Ridge, whose long and varied career included teaching, editing, and serving as director of research at the Huntington Library, died on September 22, 2003, following several illnesses. Even after his official retirement from the Huntington and from teaching, he remained active in the profession as a scholar, editor, and, above all, mentor right up to his final hospitalization in December 2002.
Born in Chicago on May 7, 1923, he attended public school on the Near North Side. He originally intended to become an elementary school teacher. He earned his bachelor's degree at Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State), graduating in 1943 at age 20. He then served in the U.S. Merchant Marines until 1945, an experience that he felt left him unfit to mold young minds. After the war, he enrolled in the doctoral program at Northwestern University where he began his lifelong study of frontier and Western history, working with Ray Allen Billington. There he also met Marcella (Sally) VerHoef, whom he married in 1948; in time, they had three sons and a daughter. He completed his PhD in 1951, beginning his teaching career at Westminster College in Pennsylvania and moving to San Diego State College in 1955. In 1966 he joined the faculty at Indiana University, where he edited the Journal of American History (JAH) and taught for 11 years.
The JAH was the setting in which I knew him best, for I worked as one of his "serfs" (editorial assistants) for four years. His standards for the journal were if possible even higher than for his own work. Unlike many other journals, the JAH under his editorship checked every name, fact, quotation, and reference for accuracy and aptness. The staff queried anything that seemed unclear, illogical, or less than true, and we cross-read every word and bit of punctuation. But more than merely mastering the technical side of good historical scholarship, we learned from him the responsibilities of good citizenship in the profession and what it means to be part of a community of scholars.
In 1977 he moved on to the Huntington Library as its director of research. After he retired from that post in 1993, he continued at the library as senior research associate, although he claimed to be simply the "official greeter." In many ways, his work at the Huntington complemented what he had done as editor of the JAH. At the journal, he could read the latest scholarship and bring work of excellence to the public. At the Huntington, he could nurture research (and the people doing it) at an even earlier stage. He never lost his sense of curiosity and interest in new ways of exploring the treasure house of the past. He also continued teaching, joining the faculty at Cal Tech in 1980 (from which he retired in 1995).
Ridge wrote prolifically. In 1962 the University of Chicago Press published Ignatius Donnelly: The Portrait of a Politician, a revised and expanded version of his dissertation. Meticulous in its detailed research and rich in psychological insights, this prize-winning book remains the definitive treatment of a complex and difficult personality. He went on to write or edit 17 more books, particularly in collaboration with Billington, his mentor. Many of them focused on the playing out of Turnerian themes on the frontier, including America's Frontier Story: A Documentary History of Westward Expansion (1969) and revised editions of Billington's Westward Expansion (1982; 2001), which took into account the insights of the "New Western Historians" without necessarily agreeing with them. He also produced numerous essays and articles, as well as The New Bilingualism: An American Dilemma (1981) and Atlas of American Frontiers (1992), which reflected, respectively, his long-standing interests in ethnicity and geography. Perhaps most moving to me was his AHA Pacific Coast Branch presidential address, "An Exile in Eden" (published in the Pacific Historical Review, vol. 66, pp. 1–20), in which he considered how the profession had grown and changed during his career and revealed how much the study of history meant to him.
He took responsibility to the wider profession seriously. Not only a constant presence in the Organization of American Historians, he also served terms as president of the Western History Association (of which he was a co-founder), the Pacific Coast Branch of the AHA, and the Historical Society of Southern California. In addition, Ridge served the profession in quieter ways, behind the scenes. For instance, despite the charge of sexism often leveled against the "Old Western History," he contributed significantly to the Western Association of Women Historians (WAWH). He arranged for the WAWH to hold its annual meetings at the Huntington virtually free of charge, showcasing both women's history and women historians. He and Sally endowed the first WAWH prize, for the best scholarly article by a member. At first, they asked that their donation remain anonymous, but in 1995 they agreed to let us name the prize in honor of their daughter, Judith Lee Ridge, who had died in infancy. He organized reading groups and luncheons for researchers at the Huntington, promoting a sense of collegiality in the sometimes lonely pursuit of research. A key player in relocating the Pacific Historical Review to Portland State University in 1996, he made himself and his invaluable advice available to deal with problems large and small. He did the same for the scores of students, researchers, colleagues, and friends who relied on his insight, wide knowledge, and wise counsel.
One Christmas the editorial assistants at the JAH gave Martin Ridge a branding iron bearing his "Rocking R" brand. We meant it mostly as a joke, but the gift proved more fitting than we knew: surely he left his mark on all of us who were lucky enough to know him.
Pacific Historical Review