Memorial service celebrates life of Professor Goldgar

Melody Moberg

The life of Professor of English and John N. Bergstrom Professor of Humanities Bertrand A. Bertrand Goldgar was celebrated and remembered the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 9 in a heartfelt memorial service. By 2 p.m. Stansbury Theatre was crowded with students, colleagues, family and friends of the remarkable man who touched so many lives.
The service lasted two hours and was followed by an hour-long reception. President Emeritus Richard Warch presided over the service, and speakers included Professor Goldgar’s two children, Anne Goldgar and Ben Goldgar, two professors, three former students and a member of Professor Goldgar’s circle of friends and scholars in London.
Professor Goldgar’s wife, Corinne, was unable to attend the service due to poor health.
Goldgar passed away Oct. 14 2009, at age 81. The 18th-century literature scholar joined the English department in 1957, and he quickly became a pillar of the university.
Goldgar was not only an excellent academic and teacher, but a beloved mentor and friend to generations of students throughout his 52 year career.
Warch opened the service with a brief biography of Goldgar and some reflections of his own, including revelations that Goldgar received a few unexceptional marks at Princeton, and was described in a letter from the university as “modest and unassuming.”
Warch described Goldgar as a “professional curmudgeon” who always wanted to continue doing things “as is” — a conservative streak reflecting genuine concern for the canon and for preserving traditions, and a value system indispensable to the integrity of Goldgar’s scholarship.
Goldgar’s children offered a glimpse of his family life. Like her father, Anne Goldgar is a scholar, working as a reader in early modern European history at King’s College in London. Professor Goldgar’s research brought him to the British Library each summer, enabling them to spend months together every year.
To Anne Goldgar, her father was a brilliant man delighting in mischief, unlucky with computers and distances, and terrified — like her — of spiders.
She agreed with her mother’s assessment of her father as “the most fatherly father that ever existed.” He was, she said, a man “inordinately proud of his children,” who saved every letter and read everything his children ever wrote.
Ben Goldgar, who is a judge in Illinois, counts his primary achievement as being the father of Professor Goldgar’s granddaughters. He shared stories of “Dad as Dad,” a dedicated and supportive man who always had a “light touch” with his children. He was also, as many of his students know, “the funniest person ever.”
Two of Goldgar’s Lawrence colleagues shared memories of their friend, and the years they spent at his esteemed grill lunch table.
Professor of Religious Studies Karen Carr described Goldgar as her best friend. They met at her first Freshman Studies symposium, where she immediately appraised Goldgar as a “wicked smart, short, portly man with piercing blue eyes and a caustic Southern tongue.”
She decided it would be best to “steer clear of this one, until more settled.” Luckily, she did not steer clear for long, and soon developed “one of the most important relationships in [her] life.”
Professor J. Michael Hittle taught history at Lawrence from 1966 until his retirement in 2001 and served as the David G. Ormsby endowed chair of history and political economy. He shared his memories of Goldgar, in the form of chapters from “the Book of Bert.”
These chapters included Bert the scholar, who was no friend of postmodernism, Bert the teacher, Bert the energetic intellectual, Bert the department member, Bert the outdoorsman, confident that art always improves on nature, Bert the friend, Bert the master and commander of the lunch table and Bert the family man.
UCLA Professor of English and Comparative Literature A. R. Braunmuller was part of Goldgar’s circle of friends and scholars in London, who, with Goldgar, researched at the British Library and frequented a nearby café for coffee and conversation.
They met in a rare books library in the 1970s, when Braunmuller recognized Goldgar as a scholar he quoted in his dissertation. Braunmuller described Goldgar’s willingness to offer scholarly assistance, and shared stories from their coffee group.
Goldgar deeply affected countless students over the years, and was beloved for his genuine interest in their lives, willingness to listen, as well as his humor and “infallible bullshit detector” described many times throughout the service.
Lydia Howarth ’75 met Goldgar at the beginning of her senior year. Like so many of his students, Goldgar’s “perfect Southern hospitality” and kindness made her finally feel welcome and at home at Lawrence.
Richard Moser ’83 described himself as a member of the Bertonians, a “society of former curmudgeons in training, who have now achieved full standing.”
For the 50th anniversary of Goldgar’s teaching career at Lawrence, he and other alumni compiled “The Berton Anthology of Panegyrical Literature.” Moser read excerpts from this satirical tribute.
Susan Crawford ’87, currently the chief legal council for Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, was “scared to death” of Goldgar when she first arrived at Lawrence. “Perhaps,” she said, “it was the pointy beard, or the beret.” But then, he almost ran over her with his Honda Civic. He later apologized to her, and introduced himself, beginning their long friendship.
The memorial service captured a broad spectrum of who Goldgar was — as a father, as a teacher, as a scholar, as a colleague and as a friend. The recollections were moving and sincere, underscoring the deep void so many of us feel with his absence.
As expected, many anecdotes shared at the service, described by Warch as the “Goldgar variations,” elicited the same tears-streaming-down-cheeks laughter familiar in any of his classes.
Ben Goldgar particularly emphasized his father’s devotion to Lawrence University, and how deeply he cared for his students. He earnestly believes his father died because he couldn’t teach and write any more, as much as anything else.
Walking away from the service one thing remained clear: Goldgar will not be forgotten.