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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

Gordon Wright, authority on European history, dead at 87

Professor Emeritus Gordon Justin Wright, a specialist in 19th and 20th-century European history, died on Tuesday, Jan. 11, at his Stanford home of complications from diabetes. He was 87.

Named the William H. Bonsall Professor in History in 1969, Wright, whose career included both academia and diplomacy, served as executive head of the History Department from 1959 to 1965, and as an associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences from 1970 to 1973.

"He was the most distinguished historian of France of his generation in this country," Richard Lyman, president emeritus of Stanford University, said. "And he was not only a distinguished scholar, but a most remarkable human being - thoughtful, fair-minded and compassionate.

"He inspired devotion in others and there was light in his eyes that I'm sure was there until the very end."

A specialist on the history of World War II and its impact on European institutions and culture, Wright was the author or editor of 15 books, including Raymond Poincaré and the French Presidency, The Reshaping of French Democracy, the popular textbook France in Modern Times, 1760-1960, Rural Revolution in France: The Peasantry in the Twentieth Century, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945, Insiders and Outliers: The Individual in History and Between the Guillotine and Liberty: Two Centuries of the Crime Problem in France.

Commenting on Rural Revolution in France, a reviewer for the Political Science Quarterly wrote that "it sheds light on many problems. . . . It is written in readable English, witty, clear and brief. In only two hundred pages of text it makes a really valuable contribution to our knowledge of contemporary France."

Wright was elected president of the American Historical Association in 1975. Colleagues Gordon Craig, Carl Degler and David Potter held the same position ­ a significant coup for one institution. Wright also served as president of the Society for French Historical Studies.

"He was one of the most distinguished historians ever to teach at Stanford and he was also an important leader and department builder, serving several years as chairman, "Paul Robinson, the Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities and a long-time friend, said. "Gordon was an extraordinarily good human being, not without a certain ironic edge, and a man who won not just the respect but also the affection of his colleagues."

Born in Lynden, Wash., on April 24, 1912, to a family that had roots in America dating back to the 1630s, Wright counted farmers, teachers and preachers among his forefathers. Noting that his great-grandfather joined the California Gold Rush but did not strike it rich, Wright once joked that "my family has never had the knack of making money."

"In high school I wanted to be either an archaeologist, hunting for petrified dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert, or a Davis Cup tennis player," Wright once said. "In college I first intended to become a chemical engineer, then a biologist, then a diplomat. In graduate school I set out to be a specialist on Germany, but found myself eventually facing a choice between Japan and France. So much for the well-planned career choice!"

Wright came to Stanford for advanced study after graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. in 1933. He earned his master's degree in 1935 and his doctorate in 1939, taught at the University of Oregon for four years, and then joined the U.S. State Department.

During and after World War II, Wright served as a State Department specialist on France and as a foreign service officer. His first foreign-service assignment in late 1944 was to lead a convoy of vehicles and personnel from Lisbon to Paris, while the Allies and Germans were still fighting, to bring reinforcements to the reopened U.S. embassy.

"The State Department official who handed me this assignment later told me that he hadn't expected us to make it," Wright told an interviewer in 1986.

Wright also served as a cultural attache to the U.S. Embassy in Paris from 1967 to 1969, a time marked by the student upheaval of May 1968. He was decorated by the French government with the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and chaired the Franco-American Binational Commission for Educational Exchange, the Fulbright fellowship program.

After his second tour in France, Wright returned to the University of Oregon and taught there for 18 years. Before coming to Stanford as a full professor in 1957, he also taught at Columbia University and the National War College.

"Gordon was a person who clearly could move between the world of scholarship and the world of diplomacy," David Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, said.

"He was a marvelous scholar and a man of unimpeachable probity and integrity ­ a model of a university citizen. Gordon was the kind of person whose word was not only penetratingly truthful but utterly reliable. He was a man of few words, but people took very seriously everything he said."

Kennedy recalled a time when he felt he had been done an injustice by the department chair, and he went to Wright to plead his case.

"Gordon heard me out with great patience, then looked me in the eye and said, 'I'm very disappointed in you.'

"And I was properly chastened because he was one of those people who could look you in the eye without menace or condescension."

Kennedy said he also remembered with great fondness the social events that Wright and his wife, Louise, often hosted at their campus home.

Wright won Stanford's Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding service to undergraduate education in 1975. He retired in 1977, but continued to teach at Stanford, Arizona State University, the College of William and Mary, the University of Washington and Northwestern University.

He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a corresponding member of the Academie des Sciences Morales Politiques. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980-81.

Wright is survived by his widow, Louise; a sister, Annette Day, of Salt Lake City; four sons: Eric, a professor of law at the University of Santa Clara; Michael, president of African Wildlife in Washington, D.C.; Philip, a lawyer in Sacramento; and David, a lawyer in San Francisco; and six grandchildren.

The family will hold private services at the gravesite, and will host a reception from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, at their campus home.

Those wishing to make donations are asked to send them to the Gordon Wright Memorial Fund for Graduate Fellowship Support, c/o the History Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 94305, or to the Whitman College library development fund at the Whitman College Office of Development, 345 Boyer Ave., Walla Walla, WA, 99362.K


By Diane Manuel

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