On Tuesday, Prof. Walter LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor of History Emeritus — one of the most influential U.S. foreign policy thinkers in the past half century and a beloved professor known for his show-stopping lectures and unconditional support for his students — died in Ithaca, NY. He was 87.
LaFeber first stepped onto the hill in 1959 as an assistant professor, having received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin that same year. He earned his professorship in 1967, and served as the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History emeritus from 1968 until 2002.
“Between 1959 and Walt LaFeber’s retirement almost 50 years later, he was, without question, the most iconic, the most admired, the most respected, the most identifiable professor who made a difference in the lives of thousands and thousands of students,” said Prof. Glenn Altschuler Ph.D. ’76, American studies, who was a Cornell graduate teaching assistant in 1971 before becoming a lifelong colleague of LaFeber’s.
LaFeber was considered to be a key member and student of the Wisconsin School of American diplomatic history. While his work forgoes typical political labels, he is considered a “moderate revisionist” who characterized the 19th century American empire as driven by economic imperialism rather than morality or security.
He also had a strong presence outside the University as a prolific writer and communicator, writing and co-authoring 20 books and dozens of articles, speaking at countless universities and appearing in documentaries such as PBS’s “American Century,” the BBC’s “End of the Cold War?” and Walter Cronkite’s “American Presidencies.”
“He was a great storyteller,” said former student Prof. Andrew Rotter ’75, history, Colgate University.
LaFeber’s lectures in Baker Laboratory granted him a level of notoriety among Cornell students for nearly 50 years. While most professors of LaFeber’s seniority usually moved on from teaching undergraduates, he continued to give lectures during the week for his courses in addition to a lecture on Saturday mornings that consistently drew massive crowds of Cornell students, faculty and outside visitors.
“What I can say to you is what I say to all current undergraduates: I’m sorry you couldn’t have taken a class with him,” Altschuler said. “I’m sorry, you couldn’t have been his advisee. I’m sorry you couldn’t have listened to a public lecture by him.”
Decades later, former students and colleagues all recount identical details of being in LaFeber’s classroom: he would walk in sharply dressed, write a table of contents for his lecture on the board, then begin speaking without notes. What resulted was an enchanting performance, with an over hour long lesson replete with narrative detail and absent of any fillers.
“I think I’m a pretty good lecturer, but Walter LaFeber’s lectures were mesmerizing,” Altschuler said. “They were no frills lectures. He wrote an outline on the board. He delivered the lectures without notes. They were perfectly formed. They were filled with narrative details, analysis. And yet, you sat in that seat. And you realized, not only that you were in the presence of a master, but that every word counted, and you were learning every moment.”
Former students also noted LaFeber’s ability to make historical figures — from Benjamin Franklin to Walter Lippmann — and seemingly mundane text come to life on the lectern.
“Each lecture was a bedtime story,” said Holly Isdale ’86. “It was very wry humor, it was encompassing, and he would deliver it without notes in incredible detail. And then at the end of the hour, he would get up and walk off.”
LaFeber’s commitment to his undergraduates was well noted by the University throughout his tenure. He was the first recipient of the John M. Clark Teaching Award, and was also awarded the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship in 1994 for his excellence in undergraduate teaching.
His former students can all give anecdotes of his commitment to those who have passed through his class, even long after graduation.
“I think he was committed to the ideal that your support for your students was unconditional and life-long,” said Prof. Edward Baptist, history. “Or it lasted as long as a student needed it to last.”
Throughout his tenure and even into retirement, LaFeber kept in contact with hundreds of his past students over email and phone, showing genuine interest in their lives no matter how far their path had strayed from American foreign policy. Very often, LaFeber would invite his past students to have lunch at his home across the suspension bridge.
Jeffrey Cowan ’86, who had done his senior thesis under LaFeber’s guidance, noted LaFeber’s interest in keeping up with him as his career jumped from being a moonlighting magician to a lawyer.
“At homecoming or something, I met LaFeber and we had lunch somewhere. And I showed him a bunch of tricks that I had learned,” said Cowan. “He had great interest in what I was doing as a magician, which obviously has nothing to do with history … But then afterwards, when I ended up, he wrote me recommendations for law school.”
Isdale, whose career jumped from law to finance, summarized LaFeber’s selfless care for his students.
“He took a genuine interest in my career path and the way it shaped. I think he was always fascinated by the different pathways that his students took,” Isdale said. “Some of us became lawyers, some of us became financiers, some of us became diplomats, some of us became teachers, and some of us just, you know, had lives. And there was no judgment.”
To those he interacted with, LaFeber’s Midwestern upbringing, from growing up in Indiana and completing his doctorate in Wisconsin, led to his deep care for his students and others.
“Walter LaFeber embodied the best of the Midwest, and that means a kind of modesty and humility about yourself,” Altschuler said. “A courtesy that is extended to everyone, and an embrace of democracy with a small ‘d,’ in which there was a sense that we all deserve to be heard, we all deserve someone’s attention.”
Other colleagues also pointed to LaFeber’s humble upbringing as being integral to his character. Baptist noted that while LaFeber was a “superstar” of academia when they first met, he remained remarkably modest and work-oriented.
“He had an ability to challenge students that were far more conservative and from much more privileged backgrounds — you know, he was a farm boy from the Midwest,” Baptist said. “He had this ability to push people to think harder and to understand that the actions they took, particularly when they had positions of power and responsibility, were meaningful and were issues of right and wrong.”
While one does not need to look past LaFeber’s 60 year tenure to see his dedication to Cornell, he remains a large fixture in the University’s history and values. After over a 100 year tradition of Cornell’s president delivering the Commencement Address, President Dale Corson broke tradition for the first time by giving the reins to LaFeber for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial.
To many of the Cornellians whose lives he’s touched, LaFeber represented the best qualities of the institution.
“Cornell is an institution of American democracy at its best, and I think Walter was a great example of that,” Baptist said. “And I think that’s why he loved Cornell, because he saw that as an institution where you could really where you can really advocate for the United States to more effectively fulfill its chance to be democratic.”
Cowan told the Sun another anecdote: years after his stint at Cornell, he was playing a game of “Celebrity” with old classmates, and he had to get his teammate to guess a famous figure without saying their name. Cowan pulled the name out of the hat and said, “Cornell”; his teammate lit up and guessed correctly: “Walter LaFeber.”
He is survived by his wife Sandra Gould and his children, Scott and Suzanne.
Corrections, March 15, 1:35 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the location of LaFeber’s classes. LaFeber taught in Baker Laboratory, not Baker 200 specifically. The article has since been updated.
The duration of LaFaber’s tenure as a Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History emeritus was misstated. The article has since been updated.
A previous version of this article stated that LaFeber’s Saturday lectures were “public” when in fact they were regular meetings of his American Foreign Policy course. The article has since been updated.