Historian and former Yale University (Conn.) President Howard Lamar (45C) died on Feb. 22 at 99 years old. He is survived by his daughter Sarah Lamar (91L) and three grandchildren.
Howard Lamar was born on an Alabama cotton plantation to a family including two former U.S. Supreme Court justices — Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (1845C) and Joseph Rucker Lamar — and the second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar.
According to Sarah Lamar, her father’s aunt said he “needed” to apply to Emory University and drove him to tour the campus. Howard Lamar decided to enroll in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, which had a profound impact on him, Sarah Lamar said. Her father was fascinated with the West, and the late Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Social History Harvey Young and the late Dean of Alumni Prentice Miller (27C, 28G) reportedly encouraged that interest.
Howard Lamar also received an honorary degree from Emory in 1975. He later accepted an invitation by former University President James Laney to chair the Emory Visiting Committee for the Arts and Sciences in 1980, one year after former Coca-Cola Company President Robert Woodruff (1912C) and his brother George Woodruff donated $105 million to Emory, University Historian Emeritus Gary Hauk (91G) wrote in an email to the Wheel. The committee evaluated and strengthened academics at Emory.
The committee suggested that the University hire young assistant and associate professors to help Emory achieve higher goals. They also pushed Emory to open a neurosciences division, an immunobiology program and a comprehensive cancer center — all of which exist today, Hauk noted in his book, “Where Courageous Inquiry Leads: The Emerging Life of Emory University.”
“Howard Lamar was not only a superb historian but also a deft academic administrator, distinguished Emory alumnus and good friend to many at Emory,” Hauk wrote.
Sarah Lamar said that her father’s positive experience at Emory inspired her to attend the Emory School of Law.
“The Emory community sends our condolences to his family and friends, as well as the countless others who benefited from his leadership and mentorship,” Assistant Vice President of University Communications and Marketing Laura Diamond wrote in an email to the Wheel.
After his undergraduate years at Emory, Howard Lamar earned his Ph.D. at Yale, where he taught American Western History for almost 40 years and served as chair of the history department. His class covered North American history until the 1950s, beginning with Indigenous communities in North America and exploring transnational migrations that shaped the continent.
He later served as dean of Yale College from 1979 to 1985 and took on the role of acting university president in 1992. Howard Lamar held the position until 1993.
During his career at Yale, Howard Lamar is credited with revolutionizing the study of the American West. He challenged historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential “frontier thesis” and argued for a more critical examination of the power struggles that occurred during the development of the West.
Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale Ned Blackhawk wrote in an email to the Wheel that Howard Lamar worked to “deepen the intellectual currents and scholarly infrastructure” of Western history.
“He had a particularly profound influence on his students, several of whom became founding figures of the ‘New Western History’ of the early 1990s,” Blackhawk wrote. “He trained more than a generation of U.S. western historians, several of whom would also become prominent Native American historians.”
Former Yale University President Howard Lamar (45C) passed away after a lifetime of work on the American West. (Courtesy of Yale University)
During his career, Howard Lamar published six books about the American West. Sarah Lamar said that writing one of his books — “The New Encyclopedia of the American West” — was her father’s proudest accomplishment. In 2000, Yale founded the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders to advance scholarship on the American West and honor his contributions to the field.
Holding the title of Yale president was the “role of a lifetime” that capped off Howard Lamar’s career, Sarah Lamar said.
“Where he probably had the most sense of accomplishment was in the diaspora, if you will, of guiding and encouraging and helping graduate students at Yale go out into the nation and be placed at great universities all over America to teach and carry on the work of Western history,” Sarah Lamar said.
Sarah Lamar added that her father was very kind, generous and always had time to help students with their work. Her father advised about 60 dissertations during his time as a history professor at Yale.
“He was always trying to encourage and, in many ways, be a cheerleader for his kids and a lot of people who worked with him as a professor would say the same thing about his encouragement of them,” Sarah Lamar said. “The other thing that I could take away from my dad, and others would as well, would be just being a good person and being kind to others and doing it with humility and not screaming from the rafters that you’re doing good things. He was very quiet in the way that he helped people and his generosity and his kindness to others.”
Asst. News Editor | Spencer Friedland (26C) is from Long Island, New York, majoring in political science and minoring in film and media. He previously interned for local County Representative Susan Berland.