Publication Date

March 4, 2024

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


  • Latin America/Caribbean
  • United States

Photo courtesy Knowlton family

Photo courtesy Knowlton family

Robert J. Knowlton, professor of Mexican and American history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (UWSP), died on November 18, 2023, at the age of 92.

Born in Akron, Ohio, Bob grew up there as well as in Mexico City, Mexico; Poznan, Poland; and Zürich, Switzerland. He started speaking Spanish before English as a toddler in Mexico, developing an affinity and skill that would serve him well in his professional life.

Bob earned a bachelor of arts in political science from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and first pursued graduate studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City in 1953. He then served in the US Army’s counterintelligence corps and was stationed in Panama from 1954 to 1956, during which time he helped guard vice president Richard Nixon on a visit. He subsequently earned a master of arts in history from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1963 was awarded a PhD in history from the University of Iowa.

Bob spent his entire professional career at UWSP, where he began teaching in 1962. His specialty was the Mexican reform, and in addition to numerous articles, chapters, and book reviews, he published Church Property and the Mexican Reform, 1856–1910 (Northern Illinois Univ. Press) in 1976. At UWSP, while he most enjoyed teaching Latin American history, he committed himself with equal determination to his large survey courses on pre–Civil War US history, as evidenced by the voluminous photographs of pre-1865 historic sites taken on family road trips (and the complete absence of any such photos of post-1865 sites). Bob was also active in faculty governance, including serving as chair of the Faculty Senate and chair of the Department of History. He promoted Latin American studies and the University Honors Program on campus. He sought to advance interest in Latin America at the state, regional, and national levels through participation in professional conferences and organizations.

Throughout his life, Bob made numerous trips of both a professional and a personal nature to Mexico, continuing his research into land policy at archives in Guadalajara and Mexico City. He particularly enjoyed the many summers he spent in Guadalajara with his wife, Barbara, whom he had met in Mexico City in 1953 and who taught Spanish at UWSP. After retiring in 1992, Bob continued to contribute to UWSP through serving on the Board of Visitors (1997–2004), the LIFE Executive Committee (2003–04), and the Foundation Board of Directors.

He conveyed his academic legacy materially in that his son and grandson both wore his gown for their own PhD hoodings, with son Stephen earning his doctorate in clinical psychology from Boston University in 1992 and grandson Eric earning a data science PhD from North Carolina State University in 2023. During the last 10 years of his life spent at the Dimensions Living senior community in Stevens Point, he was frequently recognized by former colleagues and students, underlining the broad effects of his long engagement and many contributions to his field and community.

Bob is survived by his son, (Joseph Pettigrew); daughter, Laura K. Yanchenko (Gregg); and grandchildren, Anna K. Yanchenko and Eric K. Yanchenko (Ann).

Stephen R. Knowlton
Boston, Massachusetts

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.