In Memoriam: Burton J. Williams
Michael Allen, February 2001
From the In Memoriam column in the February 2001 Perspectives
Burton J. Williams, professor and dean emeritus of Central Washington University and instructor of history at the University of Washington, Tacoma, died in his sleep on November 9, 2000, at his home in Maple Valley, Washington. He was 72 years of age. Burt was born in 1927 to John and Nina Williams in St. Louis, Missouri, where he attended public schools and joined the United States Marines Corps near the end of World War II. His marriage to Carol Williams lasted 51 years and produced six children—Herb, Laura, Mitch, Rachel, Garey, and William—and 11 grandchildren.
Williams was the first in his family to earn a college degree, graduating with a BA from Southern Illinois University, where he also earned his MA in 1961. He subsequently entered the PhD program at the University of Kansas where he studied Gilded Age and Frontier history in what he referred to as the "lion's den" of James C. Malin and George L. Anderson.
Burt's first academic job was at the University of Cincinnati (1965-67); he then took the history department chairmanship at Chadron State, in Nebraska, in 1967. In 1969, Burt was hired to chair the history department at Central Washington State College (then CWSC, now CWU) in Ellensburg. He played an important role in the institution's transition from state teacher's college to regional university. He quickly rose to be the dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, a post he held from 1972 to 1983.
Burt returned to the history faculty in 1983 and finally retired as professor emeritus in 1987. Throughout his 11-year career as an academic dean, Burt always signed his professional correspondence "Professor of History and Dean."
After his retirement from Central, Burt worked both full and part time for the University of Washington's new Tacoma campus. He was a very popular instructor with large classes in which there was absolutely no grade inflation. Burt could not abide political correctness and what he called the new American "tribalism." He once said that he had never taught a class that was not "diverse"—he said that all of his students, like all Americans, were unique, diverse individuals. Students were drawn by Burt's dramatic teaching ("a good teacher is a ham who knows something," he often said), his finely crafted irony, his curmudgeonly stance, and his iconoclastic ways.
During an active scholarly career, Burt published six books, including the respected Senator John J. Ingalls: Kansas' Iridescent Republican (1972), George Anderson's Kansas (1977), and festschrifts for both Anderson (1988) and his doctoral advisor Malin. An unpublished manuscript, "Kansas: A Saga of the Sunflower State," lay in a file cabinet in his office the day he died. Burt taught his last course the previous day.
Burt was a huge contributor to the growth and success of Central Washington University and the intellectual integrity of the University of Washington, Tacoma. We will sorely miss his intelligence, social skills, and principled actions. We will surely miss his handstands—as dean, he once made the front page of the Ellensburg Daily Record, in a handstand on an office chair!). We will miss as well his humor, distinct gait, wry observations, and unique rendering of Frank Sinatra tunes.
University of Washington at Tacoma