Owen Ulph, 1914–2003
Owen Ulph, emeritus professor of history and humanities, died on October 3 on his ranch in the Ruby Mountains near Lamoille, Nevada. Born in Chatham, Kent, England, in 1914, Ulph came to the United States when he was five years old. He earned his B.A. in 1935, his M.A. in 1940, and his Ph.D. in 1947, all from Stanford University. While a student at Stanford, Ulph served as a teaching assistant and history instructor. He was a professor of history and humanities at Reed in 1944–46, 1947–48, and 1951–52, and served as a professor of history from 1957 to 1979. He remained at Reed with emeritus status until 1981.
In his time away from Stanford and Reed in the 1940s and 1950s, Ulph taught at Montana State College, the University of Nevada, the University of California– Riverside, the University of California–Los Angeles, and Scripps College. While teaching at the latter three schools, Ulph also worked as a ranch hand in the Fiddleback Mountains of Nevada. He was married twice and had no children.
Ulph was a unique and popular Reed professor, and his students loved him for his resistance to conformity. While his lectures occasionally strayed from the subject at hand, his students often learned more from this straying than they would have from strict adherence to a particular topic.
His diverse academic interests ranged from medieval French history to Russian literature to the Western frontier. A brilliant academic and colorful conversationalist, Ulph possessed a broad wealth of knowledge and an extensive collection of interesting anecdotes. His work was published in a number of journals, including American Historical Review, California Historical Society Quarterly, the English Historical Review, the Journal of Modern History, and Russian Literature Triquarterly. He was also a contributing editor for the American West.
Ulph’s experience as a cowhand in Nevada informed and inspired his two books about ranch life, The Fiddleback: Lore of the Line Camp (1981) and The Leather Throne (1984). He wrote these books to reveal the gritty reality of range life and dispel glamorous myths about the West, because he recognized that cowhands “stood for something fundamentally noble that, along with the giant ranches themselves, seems to have left the modern scene.” Ulph admired cowhands’ “disdain for worldly accomplishment”—a disdain he unquestionably shared—and idolized the freedom of the range. His colleague and friend Ottomar Rudolf, emeritus professor of German and humanities, remarked that “the cowboy, to him, was the last free person.”
An intellectual through and through, Ulph always defied classification. He found true freedom for his mind at Reed College and true peace for his soul at his Bear Trap Ranch in Nevada. The many facets of his life made Ulph a full human being, or Mensch, as Rudolf said, and he will be remembered as such by those who knew him.