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RG 30/24 - Robert S. Fletcher (1900-1959)

Robert S. FletcherRobert S. Fletcher, creator of the Fletcher Collection, was born in Forestville, New York State, on November 20, 1900. The only son of Clayton H. and Priscilla M. (Dye) Fletcher, Robert attended Forestville Free Academy, before he enrolled in Oberlin College in 1916 where he majored in history. After being awarded an A.B. degree in 1920, he earned a living by teaching history at Luther L. Wright High School, Ironwood, Michigan. Two years later, with a scholarship in hand, Fletcher entered the doctoral program in history at Harvard University where he would study with Edward Channing (1856-1931), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (1888-1965), and F.J. Turner (1861-1932); while studying there he served as an Assistant in History at Harvard (1923-24), an Instructor in History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an Assistant Professor of History at Tufts University (1926-27). In 1925-26 Fletcher was an Associate Economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture where he produced a number of studies.

Before returning to Oberlin College in 1927 as an assistant professor of history, R.S. Fletcher earned his A.M. degree in history from Harvard in 1923; and, he married Mary Elisabeth Abbey (b. 1899) in 1925. In the Department of History Fletcher replaced Harold Lee King (1883-1926, A.B., 1905; A.M., 1908), from whom he had gained inspiration for his career as teacher and writer. During his first fifteen years at Oberlin, except for several western history articles on Montana, Fletcher’s main focus was to compile, write and edit his monumental history of Oberlin College, begun as his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. At the same time he published numerous articles about Oberlin’s early history in the Oberlin College Alumni Magazine, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, and the American Scholar. His article “The First Coeds,” appearing in the American Scholar, was reprinted and quoted as a model essay in English prose style. Fletcher was also a frequent and willing speaker, giving assembly talks and addresses on early Oberlin before Alumni groups, learned societies, and before civic and community organizations/groups. Active as he was on these many fronts, Fletcher managed to earn his Ph.D degree in history from Harvard University in 1938. Five years later, in 1943, Fletcher’s two-volume A History of Oberlin College, From its Foundation Through the Civil War was published by Oberlin College.

Fletcher was to teach at Oberlin for another fifteen years. In many respects these years were equally productive for him as a scholar. Except for the 1958 piece on “The Wellington Rescue” (Oberlin Alumni Magazine), which coincided with the centennial of that event, Fletcher’s research interests moved in other directions. In 1959 Duke University Press published his Eureka, from Cleveland by Ship to California, 1849-1850. This was an account of the nine-month voyage of the Eureka, a gold-hunter’s ship, built at the mouth of the Black River, which sailed from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Before Fletcher’s unexpected death, at the age of 59, he was also working on a biography of Charles Harvey (b.?), a late nineteenth century businessman.

Even though Fletcher’s institutional history ranks among one of the very finest college histories ever published, he may be best remembered as a teacher. He inspired students because he was able to “evoke the whole of the past.” Some forty of his students went on to earn doctoral degrees in history. Commenting on Fletcher’s life at Oberlin, his distinguished European history colleague Frederick B. Artz said: “If a college is built of men, rather than things, Fletcher’s contribution to Oberlin stands as a foundation stone.”

During his lifetime Fletcher was a trustee of the Ohioana Library Association, second vice-president of the Lorain County Historical Society, and a member of numerous state and national historical associations.

Mrs. Fletcher died in 1972; and, their son Daniel, Class of 1952, is a professor of economics at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Robert S. Fletcher died on December 16, 1959 after a long period of poor health.

Sources Consulted
Oberlin College Seal -