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 8, 2001.

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 Blodgett.

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 first.

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 or uncongenial.

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 States.

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.


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