Thomas Langdon Haskell, 1939-2017

Rice’s History Department lost Tom Haskell last week to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, a terribly sad loss. His Chronicle obituary is here and the accompanying photograph is wonderful, by the way.

It’s hard to know where to start about Tom Haskell but I’ll begin with this: he could be absolutely maddening. To the best of my recollection the only time I’ve ever lost my temper in 26 years at Rice it was with him. But at the same time I cherish the memory of his kind and generous help in untangling some knotted up problems in my own research.

He was an excellent teacher and held students to the highest standards. I once heard him read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to a roomful of undergraduates (in his black academic robe, no less). Edwards’ words, combined with Haskell’s passionate delivery and formidable bearing, left the room in stunned silence. You couldn’t even hear anyone breathe. I still think about this from time to time, always with a small catch of fear as I dangle over the fiery pit.

Tom was a committed believer in the intellectual values of the academy and in the faculty’s responsibility to protect those values. I could write about this at length, but rather than recount old battles I will only say that he fully did his part to preserve what is worthy in our institution, especially in regard to faculty governance and accountability.

Perhaps above all he was a brilliant historian, clear, subtle and fearless, whose work in American intellectual and cultural history will remain to be reckoned with for many years to come.

When convinced he had gotten hold of the truth Tom would not let go of it for anyone or anything. This was not free. This cost him, and it cost him things of real consequence.

There are few pictures of him in the Woodson. One contact sheet shows a young man in a bad sweater who very clearly did not like having his picture taken. The only other set of images is more fitting. Here is Tom in 1999, speaking on academic freedom as part of that year’s Scientia program on “Rethinking the University”:

Thomas Haskell, rest in peace.

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4 Responses to Thomas Langdon Haskell, 1939-2017

  1. Leonard Lane says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Melissa. I didn’t know of him, but I know I missed something special by not having taken one of his classes.

  2. Oh my. Doctor Haskell was my freshman advisor. I was an EE but he remained a trusted advisor to me throughout my time at Rice. I found good counsel in his office up in Fondren when I was torn how to deal with a knotty difficult decision. Once I was pondering a change in direction in my studies, and was worried that I might be making a mistake. Tom told me of the various paths that had led him to where he was, and told me one of the most liberating and valuable things any teacher ever told me; “You can always change your mind”. Rest In Peace my friend.

  3. Terry Kilpatrick says:

    This is a bit late, but I want to leave an accounting of what a wonderful and brilliant professor Tom Haskell was. I was an English major with zero interest in literary studies, so my major classes inspired me very little. I took “American Thought and Society” as a senior in 1974-75, and was amazed that a class could be so stimulating. After three years of college I finally felt like I was learning to think. I was in touch sporadically with Dr. Haskell after I graduated from Rice, the last time in the early to mid 2000s, when I was working for the faculty union at Temple University. I was drafting contract language regarding academic freedom for our upcoming negotiations with university management. Dr. Haskell kindly invited me to call him to discuss the issues I was working on, even though my focus was entirely practical and mundane. I have worked with scores of professors, and I can attest that Tom Haskell had one of the finest minds of anyone I have every met.

    • I’m now a semi-retired electrical engineer, but I still find myself remembering valuable guidance Dr. Haskell gave me. I can honestly say he changed me, and taught me skills I did not know I needed.

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