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Campus historian John Jenkins dies

November 1, 2012 By Susannah Brooks

John W. Jenkins, who carried on the work of documenting the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s history through a widely acclaimed book series, died in Madison on Tuesday, Oct. 23. He was 66 years old.

“John loved tough projects,” says Barry Teicher, a former director of the UW–Madison Oral History Project who studied alongside Jenkins and later became his co-researcher. “He didn’t back away from things; he liked sticking his nose in beehives.”

As a university historian, Jenkins shepherded many projects through completion, including histories of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, School of Medicine and Public Health, and UW Housing. But he was best known for his collaboration with the late E. David Cronon, former history professor and dean of the College of Letters & Science.

The four-volume set of “The University of Wisconsin: A History,” published by UW Press, is widely regarded as one of the finest histories of any university in the United States. Following the 1949 publication of the first two volumes, by legendary historians Merle Curti and Vernon Carstensen, Jenkins and Cronon published the third volume in 1994. Subtitled “Politics, Depression and War,” it covered the years 1925-45. The pair completed a fourth volume, “Renewal to Revolution, 1945–1971,” just in time for the university’s sesquicentennial in 1999.

“One of the marks of a really good history is that it takes a subject and puts it in a larger historical context,” says William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Chair of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies and son of E. David Cronon. “Many such institutional histories are commissioned and tell happy stories about what a great place it is, doing a dry march through the bureaucrats. This is a genuine intellectual history. All four volumes really treat the university as a major focus for historical analysis. It’s a genuine scholarly work, as opposed to a ‘company history.’”

The UW had first commissioned a history of the university in conjunction with the centennial celebration in 1949. After the Class of 1925 held its 50th reunion, its members approached then-Chancellor Irving Shain to continue the history. Shain recruited David Cronon, the only historian among the university’s deans, to supervise the project.

In the original work by Curti and Carstensen, the pair faced the daunting challenge of assembling records scattered across campus, “from attics and basements,” as Cronon said in a 1994 interview. As a result, the university established its archives to preserve historical records for later scholarly use. The Curti/Carstensen material formed the nucleus of the collection.

Jenkins and co-researcher Teicher faced the opposite problem: too many sources.

Holed up on the third floor of a rickety Brooks Street house, Jenkins and Teicher spent the years 1981 through 1988 organizing the many submissions now collected in the archives, whether previous archivists deemed them “important” or not.

But the team also faced another challenge that Curti and Carstensen did not: the relative nearness of the period studied. The years covered in Volume IV, in particular, included some of the university’s most tumultuous times — and many people with strong memories of those times still worked on campus.

“John was obsessed with getting things right, but also with exploding myths,” says Eric Olmanson, who took over the University History Project until it suspended operations in 2008, two years after Jenkins retired. “There are a lot of myths in a university, and people who were there think they know things in a certain way. But memory is kind of malleable.”

Jenkins and his collaborators gathered data, put it into chronological order, and sat back to let the documents tell the story.

“Once we thought we knew what the story was, he would say, ‘Now: try to prove me wrong,’” says Olmanson. “It was a way of applying the scientific method to history.”

Actually writing the history was a two-person assignment. Teicher left to lead the Oral History Project in 1988, as Cronon neared his retirement from administration. Jenkins and Cronon divided up the writing, with Jenkins providing a more objective point of view and a big-picture context to Cronon’s mastery of administrative minutiae.

At times intensely private, Jenkins stayed out of the spotlight even when he himself was the subject. He had a strong personality, with a direct manner that gained him a reputation as a curmudgeon.

But this straightforward approach played out in the ways he cultivated relationships: with key stakeholders across campus, past and present, as well as the students he taught in the School of Education in the early 1980s.

“Among his favorite students were athletes; he liked them because they tended to say what they meant,” says Teicher. “He liked people who were not pretentious and were just willing to give an honest answer, engage in honest discourse.”

John William Jenkins was born on March 29, 1946 and grew up in California. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at UW–Stevens Point, he received his master’s and doctoral degrees from UW–Madison in 1973 and 1978, respectively, both in educational policy studies.

Growing up with brothers who had flown in both World War II and Korea, Jenkins developed a fascination with flying. This became his great love, particularly in his final years. He built an experimental Lightning airplane, then his own hangar.

The countless hours he spent tinkering reflected his lifelong passion for finding out just how the object of his study — an airplane, a Ford Thunderbird, a sprawling institution — truly functioned.

“Curti and Carstensen had already set an unusually rigorous standard,” says Olmanson. “Jenkins and Cronon were somehow even more so.”

Jenkins is survived by his wife, Marilynn. The two collaborated on “The Howard Morey Story: A Saga of Wisconsin Aviation,” published in 2005.

No memorial service is planned.