Linda Smith, News Editor
Dr. Jacques Martin Barzun, an influential historian based in Columbia University and the University of Dallas’ first McDermott lecturer, passed away Oct. 25 at his home in San Antonio, Texas. He was 104 years old.
Barzun, born Nov. 30, 1907 in the Parisian suburb of Creteil, France, first traveled to the United States in 1917 and was admitted to Columbia University fewer than six years later, according to a Washington Post obituary published Oct. 26. Graduating at the head of his class, Barzun later received a doctorate in history from Columbia, where he taught for the next several decades.
In 1973, Barzun began corresponding with Dr. Louise Cowan, who at the time was graduate dean and chairman of the English department, about becoming the university’s first McDermott lecturer.
According to 50 Years of Vision and Courage: 1956-2006, published by the University of Dallas, the Eugene McDermott Lectureship, which continues today, was established by Margaret McDermott in honor of her late husband. The goal of the series was to invite visiting professors to UD to add to “the intellectual development of the institution.”
“The idea of a lectureship which would give an extensive experience to a small group of highly promising young people … is a particularly fitting memorial to this man who cared about the quality of life in his city,” then-President of UD Dr. Donald Cowan said, in an Irving Daily News article dated March 17, 1974.
Barzun helped the Cowans and McDermott with the formation of the ideas behind the program: according to the UD archives, Barzun contributed the ideas that the lecturer should also teach to a small class, be on campus for two to three weeks, meet with students individually for evaluation of work and papers, give two public lectures in the area and receive an honorarium of $10,000 plus expenses. These suggestions were upheld, and Barzun became a visiting professor with the Institute of Philosophic Studies for three weeks, beginning in March of 1974. He gave six two-hour lectures to a class of 34 students. English professor Dr. John Alvis said he “prepared graduate students for Barzun’s visit by reading some books on modern history, World War I and later.”
In April 1974, Barzun held two lectures at UD, entitled “Manners and the Moral Self” and “The Citizen and the Politician,” and a third at Southern Methodist University entitled “The Artist and His Politics.”
Dr. Scott Dupree, director of library research, feels that Barzun ewas the ideal McDermott lecturer.
“Barzun immediately understood what UD was trying to do [through the McDermott program],” Dupree said. “He saw it as a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy spot in American higher education.”
Psychology professor Dr. Robert Kugelmann was a first-year graduate student at the time of Barzun’s visit.
“Barzun was an important historian and educator,” Kugelmann said. “He advocated the kind of education that UD offers … [The university’s invitation to Barzun] was a big deal.”
Dupree said that Barzun wrote on an “astounding” range of topics, including education, music, art and politics.
“He changed [UD’s] attitude toward historians; he was not focused narrowly on a specialized topic,” Dupree said. “He could address questions from the past that still impact us today. He was an elegant writer, and knew how to write persuasively on many topics.”
From Barzun’s legacy through his memory and works, Dupree feels that we can learn what it means to be an intellectual “in the best sense.”
“He is the primary example of a cultural historian,” Dupree said. “His writing, research and lecturing have an impact on a broader culture. That in itself is one of the most important things: how to be an important thinker.”