African American studies prof Richard Iton remembered for caring personality, sense of humor


Lan Nguyen/The Daily Northwestern

African American studies Prof. Barnor Hesse speaks at a memorial Tuesday for Richard Iton. Iton died in April after a decade-long bout with leukemia.

Amy Whyte, Assistant Campus Editor

Friends, students and colleagues praised Prof. Richard Iton as a dedicated friend and intellectual with a wry sense of humor who – had he been able to attend his own memorial service – would have humbly objected to all the praise bestowed upon him in Harris Hall on Tuesday.

The Department of African American Studies organized the service in memory of Iton, who died in April at age 51 after battling leukemia for more than a decade.

(African American studies Prof Richard Iton dies at 51)

Iton’s brothers, former colleagues and students spoke at the service, their remarks punctuated by musical selections chosen to illustrate different facets of Iton’s life, including his love of music.

“Richard had a massive, yet still meticulous, collection of music,” said Temple University history Prof. Harvey Neptune, who taught at Northwestern alongside Iton.

Neptune said the mixtapes Iton made for him were just one small example of his extreme kindness.

“Professor Iton was a person overflowing with the will to care,” Neptune said. “He cared for me in ways I never could have repaid.”

Marissa Jackson (Weinberg ’06) shared anecdotes of how that same will to care helped her not just during her time at NU but also in the years beyond. Jackson called Iton her favorite professor and her third parent.

“He opened my mind, he changed my political leanings, he wrote all my law school recommendations – even when my official advisers told me law school was going to be a stretch,” Jackson said.

Art history Prof. Krista Thompson described Iton as the kind of friend who remembered every birthday and was always willing to pick up a friend from the airport, no matter when the flight came in. Thompson, like most who knew Iton, said she had no idea that Iton was privately battling leukemia.

“Perhaps that was in keeping with his character of always looking out for others without asking for anything in return,” Thompson said.

Provost Daniel Linzer, who served as dean of Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences when Iton was first recruited to work at NU, said Iton never mentioned his health problems during or after the recruitment process.

“His health was a factor all those years, but he never let it slow him down or keep him from what he wanted to accomplish,” Linzer said.

Iton’s accomplishments included publishing two award-winning books and playing a major role in developing NU’s African American studies doctorate program.

“He had this particular kind of brilliance to be able to see things that most of us couldn’t see and to be able to articulate them in a way that was so compelling,” said Anthony Iton, Iton’s brother.

Anthony Iton said he thought his brother would best like to be remembered through his scholarship and hoped his work as a professor and scholar would leave a lasting impact.

“It was certainly much too soon for Richard to leave us, but he did leave us with much to be thankful for,” Linzer said.

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