From Town to Gown to English Village
Wallace MacCaffrey ’42 has spent his life immersed in the past. And he’s managed to leave a $1 million legacy to Reed’s future.
As a pre-eminent scholar of Elizabethan England, he has published numerous historical works, including a pioneering monograph of local history about the town of Exeter, and Elizabeth I (Hodder Arnold, 1993), the virgin queen’s definitive biography. He’s held a host of demanding teaching positions—at UCLA (1950–53), Haverford (1953–68), and Harvard (1968–90)—and chaired the Harvard history department twice.
It isn’t every day that an alumnus who has spent his life in academia can leave a million-dollar charitable gift annuity to his undergraduate alma mater. But MacCaffrey, 86, who now lives in the small village of Girton Cambs near Cambridge, England, has done just that.
“I feel a great sense of debt to Reed. At a crucial moment in my life, it offered me just what I wanted, and gave it to me in a very rich way...”
“We got lucky,” he says, referring to the real estate investments that he and his late wife, Isabel Gamble MacCaffrey (1924–78), made over the years. Isabel was an alumna of Swarthmore and a highly regarded scholar of English literature; they had the distinction of being the first tenured couple at Harvard.
“Neither of us inherited any amount of wealth,” MacCaffrey says. But with each career move came an upswing in the real estate market. “The amount of money I have was generated not through careful investment or speculation on the stock market, but just the luck of the draw,” he says.
MacCaffrey grew up in La Grande, a small farming community in Eastern Oregon, the only son of British immigrants. “My parents were both urban types,” he says. “Initially, they thought living on a small farm was going to be rather a pleasant adventure. But it meant for a somewhat isolated life.”
At Reed, MacCaffrey found the community for which he had been longing. “My world flowered—blew up, as it were—both in terms of the teaching, which was superb, but also the interesting people.” In an interview for the Reed Oral History Project, MacCaffrey recalled a tumultuous time on campus in the lead-up to U.S. involvement in World War II, with the mood generally isolationist. “I have a vivid memory of coming up to the college one morning,” he told the interviewer, “and there was a large poster hanging on the front of the student union that read: ‘It May Be God’s Duty. It Is Not Ours.’”
Just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, MacCaffrey received his call-up, which he deferred to finish his B.A. He says his subsequent military career was “very unmilitary”; the army sent him for language training, then shipped him to Staten Island, New York, to supervise Italians taken prisoner in North Africa.
It wasn’t until the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima that MacCaffrey really thought about his future. “During the war years, I had no future,” he says. “We were living in a world with the expectation of continuous warfare. Suddenly, we’ve got this instrument that will wipe out a single city in one blow. It’s hard, I think, for the successive generation to realize how much that affected our lives.”
For MacCaffrey, the future held the G.I. Bill and a Harvard Ph.D. in English history. “Harvard was a different world from Reed,” he says. “It was a very professional world. It was not a world of intellectual communication.” A stellar reference from legendary Reed history professor Rex Arragon landed MacCaffrey a job at Haverford, where he taught for more than a decade.
The move back to Harvard came in 1968, just in time for MacCaffrey to witness the crest of anti-war sentiment on campus: university offices were occupied, the Reserve Officer Corps building was threatened, riots broke out. MacCaffrey finds the current college generation’s relative apathy toward the war in Iraq astounding.
He speculates that the lack of a military draft is partly to blame. “Students who are in college in places like Reed or Harvard are in very privileged situations,” he says, “and there’s no particular threat [to them].” Still, he continues, “I don’t understand why there isn’t more public response to Guantanamo. I think there is much less of a sense that anything can be done than there was back in the sixties. There was a sense then that we could remedy this situation somehow. But that doesn’t exist now. I think that’s something for future historians to examine.”
Since his retirement from Harvard, MacCaffrey has lived in England, where he has been a fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He travels daily by bus to the university library and is revising his biography of Elizabeth I.
MacCaffrey’s motivation for making such a significant gift to Reed’s general endowment is simple. “I feel a great sense of debt to Reed,” he says. “At a crucial moment in my life, it offered me just what I wanted, and gave it to me in a very rich way—both in the kind of teaching I got and the kind of intellectual life I found among my fellow students.”
On a recent visit to Oregon, MacCaffrey reminisced with former Reed classmate and professor emeritus of economics Carl Stevens ’42. Stevens recalled MacCaffrey’s studious work habits: on a trip the pair took to Victoria, British Columbia, during senior year to do thesis research, Stevens says that MacCaffrey refused to drink whiskey on New Year’s Eve because it would slow down his progress. “His work ethic was ridiculous,” Stevens says.
Five major works of Elizabethan history later, it could just be the understatement of the century.