In Memoriam

Jon Gjerde (1953-2008)

David A. Hollinger, April 2009

Historian of immigration and ethnicity

Jon Gjerde, the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History at the University of California at Berkeley, suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Albany, California, on October 26, 2008. He was 55. Although Gjerde had not been suffering from heart disease, he was always aware that his father and several other male members of his family had perished of heart attacks in their 50s. As he proceeded through his early and mid 50s, he was known to remark on each birthday that he had beaten the odds for yet another year.

Gjerde was a distinguished historian of immigration and European-American ethnic groups. He was widely respected for his two prizewinning books, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Belestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (1989) and The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Revolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830–1917 (1997). At the time of his death, Gjerde was nearing completion of a third major book, a study of Catholic-Protestant political and cultural interaction in the United States in the 19th century. He was also the editor of several other books, including the widely used teaching anthology, Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History (1998), and the author of several dozen monographic articles. Gjerde began his career as a quantitatively oriented social historian, but gradually broadened his methodological scope and became, beyond his original social-historical skills, an accomplished student of cultural, religious, and political history.

Born into an ethnically Norwegian family in Waterloo, Iowa, on February 25, 1953, Gjerde took his undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Iowa. He completed his doctorate at the University of Minnesota under the direction of Rudi Vecoli in 1982. He arrived in Berkeley in 1985 as an assistant professor and quickly became a devoted fan of the Cal basketball and football teams as well as an exemplary citizen of the department and the campus. Gjerde was promoted up through the ranks at Berkeley, and a year before his death was appointed to the Morrison Professorship of American History formerly occupied by Leon Litwack, Kenneth Stampp, and John D. Hicks.

Gjerde was always affectionate toward the small-town Methodist milieu in which he grew up, but was not captured by it. He ranged far and wide in the domains of scholarship and culture, but long after he was known throughout the world as a leading scholar in his field, he would say to friends, “In some ways, I’ve never really left the Middle West.” Gjerde never implied that generosity of spirit and a soft-spoken demeanor were unique to Midwestern Scandinavian Methodists, but he was quick to acknowledge the cultural foundations from which he, for one, had derived what so many of his acquaintances insisted were his consistently displayed virtues.

Gjerde was popular with his colleagues and students, and was known to be an excellent listener and a patient but discerning critic. He was deliberate and responsible in the exercise of the administrative authority that came to him during the last decade of his life. At the time of his death, Gjerde was serving as dean of social sciences at Berkeley, and had earlier served as chair of the history department. As a chair and as a dean, Gjerde was respected for both his high intellectual standards and for his personal sensitivity. He was not afraid to say “no,” but he took pains to avoid causing discomfort to colleagues whose careers were turning out to be less successful than his own, about which he remained unpretentious to the point of self-effacement. “I never thought all this would happen to me,” he said when he was named dean of the Berkeley faculty’s largest division.

Gjerde leaves his wife, Ruth, and two adult daughters, Christine and Kari. Memorial contributions may be directed to the Jon and Ruth Gjerde Graduate Student Endowment, a fund the Gjerdes together established in 2007 to benefit the history department at Berkeley. (Checks should be made out to the UC Berkeley Foundation with a note directing it to the above named fund.)

—David A. Hollinger
University of California at Berkeley