A Tribute to a Scholar
Geoffrey Thomas Blodgett '53
Emeritus Robert S. Danforth Professor of History
Geoffrey Blodgett died quietly November 15, 2001, just weeks after
the publication of his newest book, Cass Gilbert: The Early Years
(Minnesota Historical Society Press). Professor Blodgett was a distinguished
member of the Oberlin faculty from 1960 until his retirement in
2000 and for years wrote for the alumni magazine about the quirkier
moments in Oberlin history. This eulogy was delivered by Clayton
Koppes at a memorial service for Professor Blodgett on December
When you spend more than 20 years in the intimate
fellowship of an academic department at Oberlin, you learn a lot
about a colleague. But you can always be surprised. I remember an
occasion, perhaps 15 years ago, when several of us were interviewing
a job candidate over dinner at the Oberlin Inn. The talk turned
to reincarnation--not a usual topic for Jeff, nor for candidate
interviews. Everyone at the table revealed what new form he or she
might like to take, including the mystified job candidate. Finally
we all turned to Jeff. His choice, he said, was to be a blue jay
or a Packard.
A Packard--that makes perfect sense to me. Solid,
assured, elegant, but understated. The car a Boston Mugwump might
aspire to. The kind of car you drive along a manicured Frederick
Law Olmsted parkway and then park at the front door of a stately
Cass Gilbert building. A Packard--yes, that fit Geoffrey Thomas
But a blue jay? That still puzzles me. Elegant, powerful,
a leader among birds, to be sure. But the shrill, in-your-face bullying
of the blue jay? Perhaps it was an antidote to that Packard plush.
A Packard, and very occasionally a blue jay. That
was the Jeff Blodgett I knew. Jeff as colleague is a complex subject,
for each turn of the crystal reveals another facet.
If there is one unifying element, it is that first
and foremost Jeff was a scholar. He set high standards for everyone,
especially himself--sometimes so high as to be excruciating for
him. His first book, The Gentle Reformers: Massachusetts Democrats
in the Cleveland Era (Harvard University Press, 1966), grew
from the dissertation he wrote at Harvard. Jeff limned the dilemmas
of the Boston Mugwumps--men of intellect and learning, of high principles,
social position, self-assurance, ample girths, and abundant whiskers--whose
politics and sense of self were challenged by the rampant corruption
spawned by the Industrial Revolution and by the flood tide of immigrants
with whom they decided, in the end, to make uneasy common cause.
In Geoffrey Blodgett the Mugwumps found their ideal interpreter--a
historian of high learning, subtlety, and elegance of style. The
Gentle Reformers was widely praised.
But even as Jeff read the proofs for The Gentle
Reformers, a seismic shift cracked the foundations of the edifice
of the old political history. Quantification supplanted the patient
accumulation of note cards in the Library of Congress reading room.
The New Left and the counterculture shattered the cohesive narrative
bequeathed by generations of American political historians and threatened
the very possibility of narrative itself. The ideological challenge
was as troubling to Jeff as the methodological shift, for Jeff was
a patriot--the sort of patriot who paced his backyard in anxiety
and turmoil when he heard of Watergate's "Saturday Night Massacre"
because he feared for his country. The fallout from the '60s vexed
him for the rest of his career, but he did not allow it to destroy
him or, as it did some, to nurture a crabbed cynicism.
Coincidentally, but fortuitously, he acquired a camera.
His eye usually turned toward buildings and he wanted to learn their
histories. His battery of 35-millimeter slides became the basis
of one of Oberlin's legendary courses, the Social History of
American Architecture. Jeff blended his knowledge of political,
intellectual, and cultural history with a whole new subject area--indeed
a new way of knowing.
If Boston Mugwumps had been the ideal subject for
the first phase of his career, architect Cass Gilbert was perfect
for the last. Gilbert, a Midwesterner, hoped to channel the social
tensions of a turbulent time by retrieving and reinterpreting the
cultural institutions of the past. Among his triumphs are some of
the best campus buildings anywhere, built for a college being floated
to national prominence on a wave of aluminum money.
Cass Gilbert was a national, even international, subject,
but he was also a local one. And Jeff, while thinking globally,
had become rooted locally as the historian of Oberlin College and
the village of Oberlin, particularly its rich architectural heritage.
Between the pillars of The
Gentle Reformers and Cass Gilbert: The Early Years, Jeff
erected smaller, but no less worthy landmarks. His subtle essay
captured the essence of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted
as a conservative reformer. Jeff published several articles on Grover
Cleveland, the salvage of a book project, which, like many politicians'
careers, foundered on the shoals of free silver. Over three decades
Jeff wrote consistently about the history of Oberlin College. His
essays will be published as a book next year, with an introduction
by President Nancy S. Dye. These essays may not be the last word
on Oberlin's history, but surely they will be the indispensable
If I've dwelt on Jeff as scholar, it's not because
that overshadowed his other facets. On the contrary, scholarship
suffused his approach to teaching and service. He was a gifted lecturer
with a talent for narrative. He was adept at sketching the telling
moment and placing it in a great arc of interpretation. His course,
The Emergence of Modern America, brought to life political
controversies which, although now forgotten, helped shape the United
States of today's students. His intellectual history course traced
the inherited tradition of mainstream American thought. Most of
all, his architecture course--a class that bore his unique imprint--treated
buildings not as isolated artifacts but as integral expressions
of politics and culture. Jeff's teaching bore the stamp of both
imagination and meticulous craftsmanship. He could be found every
weeknight in his office on the third floor of Rice, rethinking and
reworking his lectures for the next day's classes.
His scholarship also informed his work as a college
statesman. He was a department sage. No history department discussion
was complete until Jeff had weighed in; he rarely spoke first, waiting
instead to play his closely held cards for maximum effect. His greatest
contribution may well have been to press colleagues who were hiring
faculty to constantly renew the department by incorporating new
fields of history, even when he found the new directions puzzling
It cannot have been easy for him to return to his
alma mater's department, particularly one in which the legendary
Frederick B. Artz cast a long shadow. One day the youthful Assistant
Professor Blodgett encountered Professor Artz on North Professor
Street and called out, "Hello, Professor Artz!" Artz smiled,
gave his young colleague a pat on the sleeve, and said in his most
democratic manner, "Please, call me Mister Artz!" Jeff
survived, prospered, and came to exercise an influence that even
Mr. Artz might have envied, but he was always Jeff, and unfailingly
helpful to new colleagues.
In college governance, he was our William Blackstone.
A fervent defender of a vision of faculty governance forged in the
epic struggles of the early 1970s, he dueled with adversaries as
formidable as Erwin Griswold '25, solicitor general of the United
Jeff's vision of Oberlin College led him to champion
athletics, especially football. He passionately believed that football
would enhance, not detract from, a healthy diversity at Oberlin
College. Last October, as the long shadows slanted across the field
where he had starred in his youth, he received the game ball after
the triumph over Kenyon that ended Oberlin's ignominious losing
streak. Jeff Blodgett knew that his vision had been vindicated.
If that afternoon at Dill Field was his public apotheosis,
there was a private one, equally profound, a few days later. The
printer had rushed the first copy of Cass Gilbert: The Early
Years, and he turned its pages with his beloved Jane, the pillar
who had done so much to foster his four decades as an Oberlin colleague.
Geoffrey Thomas Blodgett--scholar, teacher, statesman, athlete--the
refracted facets of a unique colleague composed a perfect whole.