Oct 15, 2010

In Memoriam: Glenn J. Ames, Scholar and Mentor

It was with great sadness that I learned yesterday of the death of University of Toledo Professor Glenn J. Ames, my dissertation advisor and a longtime friend and mentor. I knew that he had medical issues, as I took over several classes for him this semester when he went on medical leave, but I was unaware of the seriousness of his health concerns; when I last saw him two months ago he looked fine.

Rather, in retrospect, I now know that he simply put on a brave face and convinced me he was fine, despite what turned out to be terminal cancer: this must have been the stoic New Englander in him.

Glenn Ames was a prolific writer, with six academic books and countless articles to his credit. Yet I will remember him most for his excellence in teaching and guiding his graduate students, and I know that I learned a great deal from him in the decade that I worked with him.

Glenn loved to make history relevant to students, especially non-history majors in the survey classes. He had a remarkable lecture style in the large section surveys, which often had as many as 300 students. He effortlessly blended humor, pathos, and history into lectures that were as entertaining as they were instructional, and when I was his teaching assistant in some of these classes students frequently described Glenn as their all-time favorite history teacher.

I liked working with Glenn at the graduate level, as his style fit my own approach to research and writing. He allowed his graduate students to find their own research topics, and he tried not to interfere with the academic self-discovery process that comes with working on a project like a dissertation. Yet when necessary he knew when to step in and redirect a struggling student, and he was quite helpful in navigating the Byzantine bureaucracy that goes along with completing a graduate degree.

I would be remiss in this brief panegyric if I did not mention my appreciation to Glenn Ames for his help in completing my own dissertation last year. He enthusiastically backed a project that is much broader in temporal and geographical scope than is typical for a dissertation, and he recognized that the dearth of comprehensive literature on my topic meant that this was a needed contribution to the historiography of European expansion. My research in many ways reflects the efforts of Glenn to guide me in the process of being a professional historian, and I will forever be grateful for his advice.

Glenn regularly attended commencement exercises at UT, even when he did not have a graduate student walking in the ceremony. You could always spot him in the crowd, as he wore doctoral garb from his alma mater, which featured the distinctive University of Minnesota colors. Little did I know that when he hooded me last year that he would be participating in one of the last graduations in his life.

One of my favorite Glenn Ames stories is related to a guest lecture he gave at a graduate seminar called "Teaching History in College." He was talking about teaching a large section of undergraduates in a survey (1000-level) class, and one of the graduate students remarked that it seemed daunting to teach in front of a crowd of hundreds of students. Glenn told the class: "Look, these are college freshman, and they know almost nothing about world history. All you really have to remember is that Hitler lost the Second World War, and even then: you could probably let him win it once in a while and none of the students would notice the error."

Glenn's point was not to trivialize history, mind you, but to remind the next generation of college history teachers that it is understood that a beginning teacher will forget facts or misspeak on occasion, and that generally survey-level students are unaware of minor weaknesses in a lecture. In fact, part of the process of becoming a teacher is to work through a screw-up and learn to better prepare for unanticipated questions and lecture gaffes: they will happen, and they can be opportunities to improve the next time you teach the topic.

The greatest joys in Glenn's life were his two children, Miranda and Ethan. When he taught summer classes, the kids were frequently guests in his classes, and he frequently talked about the children in and out of class. Glenn used to have this ongoing gag that he worked with his son in which he would supply Ethan with a couple of answers to obscure questions he would ask in the class. When the students would be clueless, he would have Ethan supply the answers. Imagine the looks on the faces of the college students when a kid of eight or so would nail the answers to these difficult questions.

I am glad that Glenn got to spend so much time with his children, as he was able to take them to places like India and Portugal when he was working in archives. Yet it seems patently unfair that a guy of only 55 years of age should be called away while he was still so young; my heart goes out to Miranda, Ethan and the rest of his family, whose own pain must be excruciating.

The world has lost a good person, and while Glenn Ames might not be a household name, I am sure that the many thousands of students he taught in his 22 years at the University of Toledo would agree that he was an extraordinary individual with a love for life. Adeus, meu amigo.


historymike said...

For anyone interested, there will be a showing on Sunday, October 17 from 3 to 8 PM. at the Walker Funeral Home, 5155 W. Sylvania Ave, and the family plans a private service later in Rhode Island.

Historychic said...


Thank you for posting such a wonderful blog about Dr. Ames.

Anonymous said...

Your tribute is very touching, and I know that Glenn would very much appreciate your account of his charismatic engagement with his students and his kids.

Mad Jack said...

As remembered from a high school history class: When the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor...

I don't know how accurate my memory is or if the error was actually a joke, done on purpose to confuse the poor students.

Well written, Professor. It isn't that the good are the only ones to pass away, it's that they are missed so very much. You are fortunate to have known and worked with this man.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike, Glenn was a fine scholar and teacher, a thoughful and collegial fellow researcher, and a heck of a fine fellow. We shall all miss him greatly.

Anonymous said...

I went to Grad School at Minnesota with Glenn. What a dynamic person and friend. While I split off and went to law school I noticed years later that he got his Ph.D. I never contacted him but I did read his books. I regret not having told reconnected, but G-d has need of such good souls and Glenn is up there making Heaven a more magnificent place. See you again someday my friend--be in peace. R Rhodie

Gregg Peppel said...

I had Dr. Ames as a professor during my undergraduate studies at UT. He was one of the greats there. I just learned of his passing today; what a loss. Thank you for this tribute to him.