Francis Loewenheim, 1927-1996

Every once in a while I run across something that I have to lay aside for a while before I can talk about it. I’ve had this photograph of history professor Francis Loewenheim for six months but it seems so poignant to me that even now I’m not sure what to say:


There’s a tremendous amount of testimony from students that Loewenheim, a scholar of modern German and diplomatic history who taught here from 1959 to 1996, was a powerful, even great, teacher. Here are the kinds of words they use: inspiring, daunting, brilliant, witty, unsparing, passionate. All, I think, true. He also wrote extensively, even voluminously, mostly op-ed pieces in newspapers both in Houston and across the country. He consumed a tremendous amount of newsprint as well: I remember piles of newspapers snaking out of his office door and down the hall of the History Department.

At the same time, Professor Loewenheim could be, as a member of Rice’s academic community, rather a difficult individual. At times blunt to the point of combativeness, he seems to have always regarded himself as an outsider among his colleagues, although those whom he considered friends had his absolute loyalty. We have his papers in the Woodson–culled in one of the most remarkable episodes in my two decades at Rice from a veritable mountain of boxes that came from his estate–and they are truly wide-ranging and fascinating. I’m not doing him anything like justice in this short post and in fact it might not be possible to do so even if I wrote all day. He was really complicated. That’s what I see in the picture.

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10 Responses to Francis Loewenheim, 1927-1996

  1. marmer01 says:

    The SSM had offices in the Library in the mid-80s and I had several friends who took classes from Dr. Loewenheim. I remember he always wore a dark suit, not a sport coat or anything less formal, and he always wanted his classrooms freezing cold. I only knew him to say hello to, I never had a class with him. But my friends all said he was one of the best teachers they had at Rice, and he completely changed people’s ideas of how history was done.

  2. Richard A. Schafer says:

    That is a wonderful picture of a great teacher. As I remember, his office in the library was legendary for the amount of library books that it contained at all times.

  3. Ron Sass says:

    Every time I am reminded of a great teacher who is no longer with us I think of the adage, “Don’t cry because its over, smile because it happened.” In the case of Francis, I need to cry some, but I can also smile, and sometimes laugh, when I remember some of the great moments he gave my life. As pointed out above, Francis was always wanting his space to be colder, even if it meant he needed to wear his jacket. Several times he complained that his office was too warm and he needed to have control over its temperature himself. So, the library staff installed a thermostat in his office and Francis was quite satisfied. What he did not know was that at that time it was not connected to the air conditioning system nor could it be because there was no way of individually controlling the temperature of the offices.

  4. Ed Harris says:

    I took a class from Francis titled “Europe and World Politics from Pearl Harbor to the Present.” Frighteningly expansive, especially for a junior history major! As I recall, there were about 10 of us in the class, and the reading list for the semester was impressive… and oppressive: in a single week he expected us to read ALL of Nixon’s “Memoirs” and Kissinger’s “White House Years.” And I do mean he expected you to read every page! I was intimidated by him and the class, but I was also impressed and quite taken with the experience. Exams – there were only two – were hand written in blue books, no exceptions, with eight hour time limits (I’m not kidding). I recall vividly one exam question: “Should the US have used nuclear weapons to end the Korean War?” Classes, held once a week, regularly lasted five+ hours, and invariably ended with a few of us taking Francis (he never drove, that I could see) to an IHOP on Holcombe for very late night coffee and more conversation. Then one of us was literally chosen to take him home to his condo building in downtown Houston. He was one of the three most memorable history profs I took classes from at Rice, the others being Allen Matusow and Harold Hyman. But Francis may be the most memorable of all. (And, in hindsight, I like the fact he was an outcast among his peers.)
    Thank you for this marvelous and memorable post. I just have to come see his papers!

  5. Buddy Herz says:

    I had Dr. Loewenheim in Modern European History (two semesters) during his first year at Rice. I will never forget his final lecture ending the first semester which dealt with the end of an era in European relationships. Half way through the lecture, it seems the entire class of 15-20 students stopped taking notes—and just listened. As he concluded with “the lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our time”, he closed his file and walked out of the room—and not a single person moved. There was absolute silence in respect for what we knew was a memorable moment in European history for him—and a memorable moment for us to hear this magnificent presentation.

    It was the most brilliant lecture I heard during my four years at Rice. He was truly a remarkable educator.

    P.S. Our only quiz during the first semester was a disaster. There were books on file at Fondren that we were suppose to read as additional materials. Dr. Loewenheim noticed that no one (well, possibly one or two students) had checked the books out to read pertinent chapters. The quiz asked whether a certain document attached was true or false—and what was our basis for our answer. Needless to say, 95% of Rice’s most brilliant received a “5”. which was an F in the old days. It was so bad that one fellow student, who died recently, tried to be positive with the comment Dr. Loewenheim put on his bluebook—-“you missed the bus”—by quipping that with that statement Dr. Loewenheim was being positive and meant—busses come back around— and therefore he was indicating that the student had the ability and he knew he would do better the next time. Needless to say, after that experience, every student read the “additional material” on reserve at Fondren.

    A wonderful person who would talk about anything and everything with you over coffee in the student center (a rarity in those days) and my favorite professor.

  6. Buddy Herz says:

    P.S. Let me add to the above comment by stating that Dr. Sass was my second favorite professor.

  7. Wow, the “lights going out all over Europe” quote in a Loewenheim class. That must have been really powerful. Dr. Loewenheim would have been a child during the Depression and a teenager during WWII so I’m sure he had a deep personal connection to that period.

  8. Jim Pflugrath says:

    At some point in the early 1980’s, Dr. Lowenheim found out that he could eat his evening meals at Central Kitchen, so we had many meals with him. He was a very interesting dinner companion, but none of us were history majors nor had him for an instructor. I still remember his drawn out “Well-l-l-l-l!!” when we got him riled up about something or other.

    Perhaps his health was affected by all those meals at CK?

  9. Sara Lowman says:

    I just came across the photo of Dr. Lowenheim and Melissa’s entry–they stirred up a lot of memories for me! When I first started working at Rice in 1985, I worked many nights and weekends at the reference desk in the Fondren Library. Dr. Lowenheim would often come by the desk and talk about history and ask about new books published in his field–I have never encountered a person with as much bibliographic knowledge as Dr. L. He carried around shopping bags full of books. It seemed as if he knew about and had read every book published about modern history. And as Melissa says–a very quirky person!

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