In Memoriam: Roger R. Trask

John M. Belohlavek, October 2009

Fifty-year member of the AHA

Very few scholars have the opportunity to pursue their academic passions for more than five decades in a variety of environments, while building friendships in both government and the academy. Over a productive career that took him from the small college and university classroom to the corridors of the Pentagon, Roger Trask eagerly embraced numerous challenges. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Roger graduated from Thiel College in Greenville, just 40 miles south of his hometown. The college, where he met his wife Dorothy, always held a special place in his heart. After earning his MA and PhD (1959) from Pennsylvania State University in U.S. diplomatic history, Trask taught at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, before returning to Thiel in the early 1960s. He moved on to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, for a decade before assuming the chairmanship of the history department at the University of South Florida in Tampa. During this period, Trask published his first book, The United States’ Response to Turkish Nationalism and Reform, 1914–39. He then moved into a new area of interest—Latin America. This evolution resulted in a co-edited volume with his brother, David, a fellow diplomatic historian, entitled A Bibliography of United States-Latin American Relations since 1910.

New opportunities presented themselves in Washington, D.C., so in 1977 he began a second career as a government scholar. Trask first became the chief historian of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and then deputy chief historian of the defense department’s historical office. In the latter capacity he published The Secretaries of Defense: A Brief History, 1947–85. He moved to the Government Accountability Office in 1987 and wrote GAO History: 1921–91 followed several years later by Defender of the Public Interest: The General Accounting Office, 1921–66. A second stint in the defense department from 1994 to 2004 yielded The Department of Defense 1947–97: Organization and Leaders. Trask took particular delight in developing the oral histories of the agencies that formed the backbone of his work. He thrived on personal interaction.

His many achievements are reflected in the various leadership posts that he held over a lifetime, in professional organizations such as the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and the Society for History in the Federal Government and on editorial boards of several journals. Trask retired in 2004 and divided his time between his homes in Locust Grove, Virginia, and Bradenton, Florida. Both locations allowed him to pursue his infatuation for golf with David, and enjoy his family, his wife Dorothy and his children, Julianne, Carolyn, and Larry. Trask’s other great interest was a relentless enthusiasm for politics. His high energy, dry sense of humor, and positive support for his friends will be sorely missed. Roger never abandoned his profession. An unfinished Civil War novel was in his study when he died in Florida on April 18, 2008, at age 77.

—John M. Belohlavek, University of South Florida