Leopold, 94, Left Lasting Influence On Students As Friend And Mentor

Marc Zarefsky

By Marc ZarefskyThe Daily Northwestern

Richard Leopold, a renowned historian, professor and longtime member of the Northwestern community, died in Evanston on Nov. 23 of natural causes. He was 94.

Leopold came to NU in 1948 and taught in its classrooms for 32 years. According to those who knew him, he will be remembered for the way he built personal relationships with his students.

“The thing that made him remarkable and unique was his ability to make students become very loyal to him, and that was something he treasured above all else,” said Steven Harper, Weinberg ’76, the author of Leopold’s biography, to be published by Northwestern University Press in fall 2007.

Harper said noteworthy NU alumni identified Leopold as a mentor, including former U.S. Senator and presidential nominee George McGovern, Ph.D. of Philosophy ’53; former House Democratic Leader and presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, Communication ’62; and television and movie producer, writer and director Garry Marshall, Medill ’56.

“(He) had a profound influence on the culture of the (history) department and university in many ways, especially through his demanding, yet caring, teaching style with his students,” said Weinberg Dean Dan Linzer. “His impact can be seen in the professional success of his former students, who attribute their success to his famed seminar and his attention to them both before and after graduation.”

Leopold was born Jan. 6, 1912, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He graduated from Princeton in 1933 and received a master’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard.

During World War II Leopold worked as a Naval officer at the Office of Naval Records and Library in Washington, D.C. He later served on a number of governmental advisory committees, including the Army and Marine Corps, the CIA and the Library of Congress.

At NU, Leopold’s core undergraduate courses were Armed Forces in American History and his yearlong sequence on American foreign policy, which was almost always filled despite meeting at 8 a.m. three times a week.

In the late 1960s, while many universities were dismantling their Naval ROTC programs during the Vietnam War, Leopold helped prevent NU from doing the same.

Leopold retired from NU in 1980. In 1990, the annual Richard W. Leopold Lectureship was established to bring prominent individuals involved in public affairs to campus.

In 1997, more than 230 of his former students endowed the Richard W. Leopold Professorship in American history. Funds for the professorship reached $2 million in October, allowing it to become a permanent award. A celebration in honor of the accomplishment was held Oct. 19.

“His students became family, as evidenced by the enormous outpouring of financial support from the ‘Leopold Alumni’ for the endowed chair and annual lectureship in his name, and their traveling back to campus each year to attend the lectureship and see Dick,” Linzer said.

As part of the celebration, some of Leopold’s former students were asked to submit letters of congratulation to their former professor. As Leopold’s health declined, Harper obtained copies of the letters. For the last two days of Leopold’s life, Harper at his side and read him each letter.

“Among the last things he heard were letters of praise and testimony from his former students,” Harper said. “In the end, what went around came around for him.”

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Jan. 20 in Harris Hall 107.

Reach Marc Zarefsky at [email protected]