Remembering Bob Kingdon, 1927–2010

Friday saw the passing of Bob Kingdon, my mentor, advisor, boss and dear friend of 22 years. Bob was a scholar of the first order, and a man of the absolutely finest character who set an example that is hard to match. He will be deeply missed.

Unlike most senior scholars, Bob went to conferences not just to see his old friends and to schmooze with the other top scholars in the field, but to sit in on first talks by second-year grad students and see what the kids were up to. He would return brimming with enthusiasm and saying he hoped it was okay that he had passed my contact info to a young student doing the most fascinating work. Numerous scholars told me they never got respect from their own professors until Bob attended one of their conference talks and then contacted the student’s professor to say what interesting work they were doing.

Bob accepted criticism of his work not just with grace but with gratitude, and was always concerned for his students first as humans and only secondarily as scholars.

He had been physically limited since his brain hemorrhage of a couple of years ago and asked for my help preparing a book based on a series of lectures he gave at Princeton in 1999. Only a couple of days before his death, he emailed me approving in principle my last proposed substantive changes. He was truly a scholar to his very last days, his astounding memory and precise mind active to the very end.

A Man of Great Kindness

He came to Geneva while I was doing my dissertation research. We met outdoors somewhere and he said “How are you doing?”
I said, “Fine thanks, and you?”
He waved off the question and cut to the chase: “No, really. How are you actually doing? Is everything going okay.”
I said, “Well, better actually.”
He said, “That’s why I asked. My first winter in Geneva was one of the hardest and most depressing of my life. I was afraid you might be struggling.”

In fact, I was, or I had been. An on again and then off for good relationship, coupled with the rainiest autumn on record in a city where I hardly knew anyone had indeed made for a rough landing in Geneva.

Bob was always concerned with the person first, the student/scholar second and was always kind and caring. After I met Theresa, I told Bob at one point that I wasn’t sure a career in scholarship was for me. He wrote me a long letter about how he thought I would be a good professor and hoped I would find a position at a top research institution, but he concluded, “those are just my hopes for you and my most important hope is that you be happy.” Though Theresa and I were still a new couple, he went on to say that it looked serious to him (perhaps even before we thought of it that way) and he told me he hoped I would be able to have it all, “but if you have to choose between an academic career and Theresa, you should choose Theresa.” Which I did.

An Open and Curious Mind

Bob on first appearance might have appeared like an uptight oldline Presbyterian, but it didn’t take long to see something very different. An incredible openness, curiosity and pleasure in things that were new and different. When my wife dyed her hair blue, the older generation was almost universal in their shock and dislike. Bob was the exception. We met on the street and he saw her blue hair and exclaimed, “Your hair is blue!” We braced for the condemnation that everyone else his age issued, but instead he said, “I love it! It’s so festive!”

I saw him a lot when we lived in Berkeley because he usually spent a few weeks a year there visiting his sister and other family. We got together regularly during his stays and occasionally he stayed in our student garret when his sister’s house was full. One day I was returning a video at the video store right next to the radical Black Muslim Bakery. The guy behind the counter was a huge black guy, easily 6’4″ and broad-shouldered. Bob was staring and staring and I could see the guy behind the counter getting tense and starting to get upset. He had this growing “Why is that old white dude staring at me like that?” look on his face.

As I was wondering how to defuse the tension, Bob, in enthusiasm and wonder, said “Your beard is incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like it was painted on or something.” The guy flinched like he had been hit in the gut, then stood two inches taller and broke out in a huge smile. His whole worked rocked and he said “Why thank you!” with a look of both delight and utter amazement. Bob then followed up with conversation, always human, always curious. Did you shave it yourself? How long do you have to spend on it each day? What gave you the idea? Did you have a pattern or figure it out on the fly?

By the end of it, the guy was absolutely beaming, walking with a strut around the video shop and looking even taller than is normal 6’4″. There’s something about that incident that always sticks out in my mind as an indication of a mindset that I think contributed greatly to his scholarly abilities and his ability to connect with people.

A Seeker of Truth and a Man of Character

Beginning about my second year of grad school, since I was often close at hand as his one of his three research assistants, Bob started asking me to proofread his articles and conference papers he was writing. At first, he mostly ignored my comments except for minor stylistic or factual errors. Over time, though, as my knowledge of the field grew, he came to trust my criticism more. To some extent, it was really beside the point. The hallmark of Bob’s scholarship was precision and exactitude. He was not a scholar to make grandiose claims that he couldn’t support. He was a man who tended to extend his hypotheses out in tiny increments as he studied and researched and polled other scholars. So it was rare there was a great deal for me to say on any of these occasions.

But then came the day when he gave me a paper to read that, it’s fair to say, I thought was way below the level of his usual work. I was taken aback and somewhat unsure how to proceed. It had clearly been done in haste. I knew that he had in fact worked on it late into the night, possibly until dawn in fact, to meet the deadline. Though scholars of his stature often get exceptions on deadlines, Bob was not the sort to ever ask. Even at 70 years old, he would rather work all night than ask for an exception.

So the paper was rough and there were numerous factual errors. But what really concerned me was the tone. He was presenting before a conservative Christian audience and he seemed to be pandering to them, looking to please and, I thought, whitewashing the work of Calvin and the Consistory.

I was faced with a dilemma. Do I risk offending the person who controls almost every aspect of my academic and economic life, the person who can offer a thumbs up or a thumbs down on my disseration? But I asked myself what I would want if I had given a paper to a friend, and I decided that I would want blunt, honest feedback before I gave the paper in public, unpleasant though that feedback might be. So I sucked it up and decided to tell him exactly what I thought.

My critique began with “Well, this certainly is a kinder and gentler John Calvin” (in reference to the first president Bush, of course, who had given a speech about a kindler and gentler America). I then went on at great length with point for point responses. When I printed this out and saw that my response was longer than his paper and most definitely not kind, I hesitated. It seemed so… brash, maybe arrogant. Was it mean? No, I certainly did not intend it to be mean, but it was awfully blunt. And it was honest.

I finally decided I had to send it to him (though probably I should have done a rewrite to make it a bit more politic and polite). I remember dropping it in his departmental mailbox (this was before email kids). I did not believe that Bob was the vindictive sort, but I had not really tested that theory. As I dropped it off, I said to myself “Well, this will be the measure of the man.”

Riinnnggg… riinnnnggg. I pick up the phone.

“Tom. This is Bob Kingdon” he said in his characteristic clipped speech that could indicate either anger or joy. “I received your response to my paper,” he continued in flat, clipped tones. Uh oh.

“I have not had time to give it the full attention it deserves,” he continued, “but I wanted to call right away and thank you [emphasis his] for the tremendous effort you put into this. I can see right off you saved me from some howlers [his phrase for embarrassing errors]. I’m a little embarrassed to have asked you to read such a rough copy and I’m sorry for the extra effort it took for you to edit this document. I should have set it aside for a day and reread it, but I am enormously grateful for all your comments. You’ve spared me considerable embarrassment. I would never have asked you to do this if I had realized how much time it was going to take from you. I need some time to go through it more carefully and I’ll get back to you if I want clarification on any of your arguments, but for now I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am.”

I had said he response would be the measure of the man. I hung up the phone and said to myself, “Well, I guess he passed that test.” It was pure, guileless and genuine thanks.

I can’t say that my character is as strong and my interest in truth so pure. I don’t think I’m particularly bad at taking criticism, but I know for certain I am not that good at taking it. That incident happened somewhere between 15-20 years ago now and it has set the mark I shoot for.

Being, uh, less than perfect, I have had several chances to test my own reactions in the face of criticism and see how I measure up to that same test. I have to say, my test results have fallen short of Bob’s summa cum laude performance, but having that one example, and indeed other subsequent examples from Bob since that case was not at all out of character for him, to return to has made me a much better person. Since that day, whenever I have been subjected to criticism, I always try to stop for a couple of seconds, get beyond the punch to the gut, and think of Bob and his response and I try to remind myself that the proper attitude is gratitude and the proper response is to say “Thank You!” I can’t say I’m good at it, but I’m a lot better at it than I would have been without his example to guide me.

I could multiply the stories endlessly. Bob pulling a sheaf of papers out of his desk from an abandoned book project saying he wished he could find someone to give them to since he’d really like to see that book, but he would never write it himself. Bob, who never made any effort to be the hip, col professor sitting on the floor at a party to demonstrate some Hawaiian musical instrument. Bob, the scholar, always being right at home with everyone. In Geneva, some people had trouble understanding why a full professor who had received an honorary degree from the University of Geneva and many other honors, always made a point of having at least one dinner with the security person at the Archives, a person 30 years his junior, with no university degree and no real interest in history (and also my good friend, Daniel). Or the day Bob walked into our shared office and literally jumped in startled surprise when he saw me at my desk, on the first sunny day after a long stretch of rain: “Oh, I didn’t expect to find you here! I thought given the weather you would have taken the day off and gone climbing.”

The core of it is that Bob was that though Bob was one of the great scholars of his age (they had an entire special conference to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his first book), he was fundamentally human and always put people first and scholarship second.


Some years later, I took a new job. Theresa asked me how it was going and how I liked my boss. I said, “He’s no Bob Kingdon, but he’s fine.”

She looked at me and said “Sweetie, very few people get to work for one Bob Kingdon. Nobody gets to work for two.”

And that may be the best way to sum up what was one of the great privileges of my life: having Bob as a mentor, professor, boss and friend for 22 years.

6 Responses to “Remembering Bob Kingdon, 1927–2010”

  1. Kathleen Comerford

    Tom, those are beautiful stories–especially the one about your critique. Over the last few days, I have found myself asking “What would Bob do?” on several occasions. I’ve thought about what I might say was the best lesson he taught me, and as of yet–it’s still too early–I can’t find only one great thing.

    In grammar school and high school, I learned over and over again how to write a thesis statement. I’d used that skill in college, of course, but somehow I’d stopped developing it; I was just using the same old formula. Then I met Bob Kingdon. The clarity of his writing and the tightness of his arguments were the mark I now knew I needed to strive for–and so, all over again, I learned how to write a thesis. This time, though, it was how to write a really good thesis, one that drew people in, explained what was the problem, and suggested both why it was an important problem and how to solve it.

    I’d also learned over the years about that “why” thing–but I’d assumed that it meant that there was some sort of definitive answer to it. Bob, bless his heart and his mind, showed me both how to defend, even embrace, a negative conclusion (both in the “I was wrong” sense and in the “they were wrong” sense) and how to keep looking for more questions to ask. The dissertation topic I chose was mad: I thought it made sense, but it involved more of those negative conclusions and more of that creative re-questioning of documents than a novice researcher could handle. I continued because I am stubborn and I wanted to graduate. Now I realize, though, that I continued in part because Bob both allowed me and supported me. I didn’t see it at the time, but in retrospect it’s obvious: if he had thought it was impossible for me to do it, he would have stopped me. He was too good a teacher, and too good a man, to watch one of his students fail.

    After I had defended and filed my dissertation, as I was about to leave for my first job, I went to say good-bye to Bob. I loved his office in the Institute for Research in the Humanities, but I admit that in the winter I hated *going* there. This was summer, so it was one of those perfectly beautiful clear Madison days when the view from the IRH was so spectacular. What I remember most about that day was first my bittersweet feeling that I had done it–I was finished and was leaving for my career–but I would miss the town, the library, the friends I’d made, and the support of having a mentor just a few minutes away. We chatted briefly and Bob made a comment which I think I’ve only just now understood, 15 years after the fact. He said that he was initially skeptical about me and feared that I might not perform up to par–I don’t remember the words, but the sense was something about being concerned that my religious upbringing and training might interfere with my historical perspective. I was surprised, to say the least; I managed to laugh and ask why, if he had doubts, he’d accepted me. His reply was something to the effect of wanting to take the chance. For some time I didn’t know what to think. I felt a little stung, but realized that this was irrational since he was saying I’d done well. In fact, he was saying that he’d believed in me at first, and still did; he was saying that I had overcome important obstacles; he was saying that he was proud of me. I wish I’d realized it at the time, or even sometime before now, so that I could thank him for it.

    So in the end, I suppose that Bob taught me to think more deeply about things, and keep questioning, even though I didn’t always heed his advice. He also taught me that accepting criticism is growth; never once did he suggest something which wasn’t worth thinking about, and when (only once, really) he was wrong and I was right, he was just fine about it, and indeed interested in learning something new. He taught me that it was not only okay to admit to not knowing something, but a perfectly natural thing leading to greater knowledge (an attribute that not all of his colleagues shared, which often left him disgusted). He taught me that the intellect never really grows old, and that the really great people do not have egos the size of Texas–but they do have hearts and curiosity that big.

  2. That’s funny, what he said about having doubts about you. Funny because I will never forget the first time we met. Loretta Freiling took me down to meet him while he was eating his lunch. She introduced me as a new student, and he told me to have a seat, and then proceeded to finish his lunch in complete silence. After perhaps 5 minutes, he was done, but spent another minute or two folding his lunch bag, putting away his utensils and so on. Then he turned to me and said, a bit sharply, “So, who are you?”

    The conversation did not rapidly improve and I suddenly had the feeling that I had made a huge mistake. Naive as I was about the whole graduate school process, it had not occurred to me that the normal thing was to visit the professor you were going to study with *before* applying and to make contact *before* enrolling, and I think he thought I was not really serious about the whole enterprise. In fact, he may have been right, since I told myself I would try it for a year and if I hated it or started to accumulate too much debt, I would simply quit.

    My next conversation with him was much nicer, though it too had a similarly difficult moment. In the first class meeting, I was assigned to report on a book by Cochlaeus. I forget which. A couple of days later I met Bob at a reception for new grad students. He came up to me, smiling, and commanded (yes, it was a command) to go get some food before settling into conversation “Because this is likely the last free food you’ll get out of this department.” Now THAT was the real Bob Kingdon.

    Then after a reminder of my research interests, he proceeded to shepherd me around the room, on the look out for any faculty member who might conceivably be able to help me in the coming years. Despite what doubts he obviously had as evidenced in our first conversation, he introduced me as though I was the promising new grad student he had been waiting to show everyone and they should be so lucky as to meet me and, of course, every faculty member that I met was introduced as a rising star who would most definitely be invaluable to me in the coming years. That too was pure Bob Kingdon.

    Then he asked about the assignment he had given me. I informed him that that particular work was only available in sixteenth-century German. Having only had three semesters of German, it was not one of my research languages, so what I meant when I told him there were no translations or even annotated editions in the library, was that of course I could not do the assignment. That is not, of course, what he heard. He looked at me and said “Oh! What a great chance to dust off your German!”

    The message was clear: whatever you thought graduate school was about, you were clearly mistaken. My expectations will be higher than you thought, but so will my enthusiasm. Now run along little firstie, find your German dictionary and get to work. I’ll expect your report on Tuesday. All of that, however, was said without belittling me in the least or making me feel inadequate. Just a sort of “Lucky you! What a great learning opportunity before you! And by the way, ‘I don’t speak the language’ is not really an excuse.” Now THAT too was pure Bob Kingdon.

    In fact, no other human being, and particularly no other scholar I’ve ever met, was able to uncover and reveal gaps in your knowledge and yet do so without a hint of condescion or reproval. Rather than “Seriously, you’ve been studying Reformation history for three years and you don’t know THAT yet?” with Bob it was more like his face would light up as he thought “Oh, you haven’t heard of that yet! Well, lucky me, now I get the chance to teach you about it!”

    I can remember some glaring gaps in my knowledge of some of the most common and basic things, and Bob without missing a beat and not the slightest hint of condescension, moving smoothly to a simple explanation.

    Is there anyone else you’ve ever met who could do this so gracefully? I certainly haven’t.

  3. Kathleen Comerford

    Well, the thing is, I never knew he *had* doubted me. That’s why it surprised me so much to hear it.

    I arrived in Madison with a Master’s in hand, but I still didn’t know anything! I clearly remember one day, during the first semester, finding the first festschrift dedicated to him, and reading with growing fascination and horror the tributes in the introduction. How in the world, I thought, did I deserve to get HERE? If I’d known then that he had any doubts, I probably would have died on the spot. I was in a terrible tizzy for days after that, and then somehow forgot it in the wake of all the other anxieties of graduate school, like deadlines and sources and Madison’s weather. Somehow I scraped together the will and wit to write that seminar’s paper, and then to move on, and to remember that I *had* been accepted, and I *was* doing well.

    And no, he was never condescending or dismissive, and never once made me feel like he’d made a mistake; he was indeed always curious and terribly excited about teaching and learning. I thought of him when I met a Nobel Prize winner a couple of years ago: Bill Phillips has a similar lack of ego and a similar joy in exploring. I hope that, among all the things Bob taught me, he taught how to find that joy until my own dying day.

  4. This is the University of Wisconsin’s official obituary (not sure where it comes from, but it was on the Caring Bridge site)
    ROBERT M. KINGDON (1927-2010)

    Robert McCune Kingdon, Hilldale Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, beloved mentor of generations of Reformation scholars and path-breaking historian of the Reformation, died on Friday, December 3, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. He was the preeminent American historian of the French Reformation.

    Kingdon was born in Chicago, Illinois on 29 December 1927, but spent the first twelve years of his life in Hawaii. After receiving his B.A. summa cum laude in 1949 from Oberlin College, he entered the graduate program in History at Columbia University where he completed his M.A. (1950) and Ph.D. (1955) under Garrett Mattingly. For his dissertation, he posed what he called a hypothesis on how the Reformation spread from John Calvin, in Geneva, outwards into France and elsewhere. To test that hypothesis, he went to Geneva. The product of that research, his first book, Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 1555-1563 (Geneva, 1956), presented hard evidence of the ways ideas moved in the sixteenth century. The book became an immediate classic: an edition was published to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary in 2007. It was followed by Geneva and the Consolidation of the French Protestant Movement, 1564-1571 (Geneva and Madison, 1967); Myths about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572-1576 (Cambridge, Mass., 1988); and Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

    Kingdon belonged to the first generation of American historians of the Reformation who went to the archives. That sense of history as grounded in and anchored to archival sources not only defined Kingdon’s own work, which changed the shape of the field, but also that of his students. From his unparalleled knowledge of the archives of Geneva emerged one of the major projects of his life, the publication of the Registers of the Consistory, the disciplinary body Calvin helped to found, first in their original language and then translated into English. He carried on this project in collaboration with Librairie Droz in Geneva, and raised the funds, much of them his own, to ensure the completion of the project after his death. He also supported the publication of the Registers of the Company of Pastors, who spread out from Geneva, carrying the Genevan Reformation to France, the Low Countries, England, and, ultimately, the North American continent.

    After he began teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1952, Kingdon moved to the University of Iowa in 1957. He joined the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as full professor in 1965. In addition to his appointment in the History Department, he was appointed a permanent member of the Institute for Research in the Humanities in 1974 and served as its Director from 1975 to 1987. In those joint roles, Kingdon brought major European historians to Madison to participate in his graduate seminars, fostering an international community of scholars whose conversations have proven lifelong. He oversaw more than 35 dissertations on topics that ranged more widely than any other historian on either side of the Atlantic: on Reformation France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Scotland and England, the Reformed tradition, Martin Luther, the Catholic Church and the Catholic Reformation, women’s history, and social, political, and religious history.

    Bob Kingdon held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (1960-61), the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton (1965-66), the Guggenheim Foundation (1969-70), and a Forschungspreis from the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung in Germany (1992-94), among others. He was President of the Society for Reformation Research (1970-71) and of the American Society of Church History (1980). He was one of the three founders of the Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference, the largest group of the field, explicitly intended to be inclusive and expansive—non-denominational and interdisciplinary. He served as editor of the Society’s publication, The Sixteenth Century Journal, from its inception to his retirement.

    He is survived by his sister, Anna Carol Dudley of Berkeley, California; and his brothers, Henry Shannon Kingdon of Drummond, Wisconsin; John Wells Kingdon of Washington, D.C.; and Arthur McAfee Kingdon of Vassalboro, Maine.

  5. Marcus Serven

    Thank you for sharing these personal insights into Bob Kingdon’s character and giving examples of his great love for learning. As a fledgling student of Calvin I have benefited greatly from reading through “Registers of the Consistory of Geneva”, and “Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage”. These two books have been a goldmine of information and they have given me a lot more understanding of how the Genevan Consistory worked. My own particular interest is in Calvin’s pastoral theology and how it might be a help for Reformed and Presbyterian pastors today. I look forward to seeing other volumes of the Consistory records get translated and published. Thanks so much for setting up this blog.

  6. Thanks for your comment and sympathies on regarding Bob Kingdon’s passing. A sad passing of a great man, but one who had lived a full and complete life. We all miss him deeply, but it’s nice to know that his work continues to touch young scholars.

    I just thought I’d let you know, there are no plans for additional translations of Consistory volumes. I think volume one will be it, barring a publisher who wants to fund it.

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