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Robert Walter Johannsen ’48

A picture of Robert Johannsen

Robert Walter Johannsen ’48, August 16, 2011, in Urbana, Illinois. Bob grew up in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland and graduated from Washington High School. His father, Walter Johannsen, was in the Student Army Training Corps at Reed in 1918–19. Shortly after Bob entered Reed, he was drafted into military service. During World War II, he served in Europe, using his skill in mathematics to determine the location of enemy artillery. He returned to the college, where he earned a BA in history. At Reed, he met Lois Calderwood ’50; they married in 1949 and were together until her death in 2008. Bob earned a PhD from the University of Washington, and taught there and at the University of Kansas before joining the faculty at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, in 1959.

During his long career with the university, he taught 19th-century American history: the trans-Mississippi West, the age of Jackson, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Mexican War. His course on the Civil War was one of the most popular at the university. Bob received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an appointment to the University of Illinois Center for Advanced Study, and he was named the J.G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History. Among his many publications, his book Stephen A. Douglas is considered the definitive biography of the Little Giant and earned Bob the Francis Parkman Prize for Literary Distinction in the Writing of History. He also received an LHD in history from Lincoln College. “One of the most valuable aspects of my Reed education was the instruction I received in writing, instruction that began in my freshman year and extended throughout my Reed years,” he wrote in 1981. “The emphasis Reed placed on the quality of self-expression proved to be highly significant to my later education. In addition, I received a solid grounding in the canons of historical scholarship from my mentor, Dorothy O. Johansen ’33 [history 1934–84], and from others on the Reed faculty. I cannot stress enough the importance of Reed’s liberal education on my career. Nor can I exaggerate the debt I feel I owe to my Reed education for the foundation it gave to my career. I still draw on that experience in an amazing number of ways.” Bob brought graduate students together in informal meetings at his home. The Little Giants, as they were known, later became professional historians, and 11 members of the group published Politics and Culture of the Civil War Era: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Johannsen in 2006. In addition, the Robert W. Johannsen Undergraduate Scholarship Fund was established at the university. Bob was active in many historical organizations, including the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Great American People Show, a theatre company based in New Salem. He contributed to several documentaries, including The Civil War by Ken Burns. Bob enjoyed travel, photography, concerts, plays, stamp collecting, gardening, and baking bread. “He was a devoted husband and father who lived his life with integrity, honesty and humility. He will be deeply missed.” Survivors include his two children, Nancy Johannsen Morrice ’76 and Robert D. Johannsen; four grandchildren; and his sister. Bob’s family suggests that contributions in his memory may be made to Reed.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2012

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