Susan Rita Schrepfer: 1941-2014
Peter Mickulas, December 2014
US Environmental Historian
Susan Rita Schrepfer, professor of history at Rutgers–New Brunswick, died on March 3, 2014, after a long, courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. Born in San Francisco in 1941, Susan grew up in Gilroy, California, where she graduated from high school and worked as a farm laborer. She studied history at the University of California, Santa Barbara and received her AB in 1963. Susan earned an MA (1965) and a PhD (1971) in history at the University of California, Riverside.
After graduation, Susan worked as a researcher at the Forest History Society, then located in Santa Cruz, California. She plunged into the huge collection of business records of the US timber industry, personal papers of foresters and conservationists, hard-to-find Forest Service records, and long-out-of-print newspapers, and conducted interviews with some of her most important contemporaries in these areas. This research enabled her to acquire a better understanding of the disparate approaches to public forest management advocated by preservationists, scientists, and timber industry executives during the 19th and 20th centuries. The result was A History of the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station (GPO, 1974), coauthored with Edwin H. Larson and Elwood Maunder. Her research in forestry archives also helped Susan revise and publish her dissertation, The Fight to Save the Redwoods (University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), an incisive portrait of the growth of the environmental movement in the 20th century. The book won the Biennial Book Award for best book in environmental, conservation, and forest history, awarded by the Forest History Society in 1983.1 In 2005 Susan published her third major scholarly work in environmental history, Nature’s Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 2005), which Reviews in American History called perhaps “the best monograph in US environmental history yet to appear to use gender as its central category of analysis”; the review further praised the book’s “sophisticated argumentation wedded, uncommonly, to an engaging, lively, gripping read.”2
Susan arrived at the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers in 1974 as an assistant professor of history, working her way through the ranks to professor. During her 40-year career at Rutgers, she was a wonderful colleague, a warm and attentive mentor of graduate students, a deeply caring teacher, and a meticulous scholar.
Perhaps Susan’s most lasting legacy is the Rutgers Institute for High School Teachers, which she helped found in 1988 as part of the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. The institute allowed her to extend her commitment to teaching excellence to thousands of the state’s high school students. The institute operates as a collaborative effort among the state university’s history faculty and New Jersey’s school teachers, hosting seminars focusing on classroom learning in the social sciences and humanities, the use of primary documents as teaching tools, and the incorporation of the latest historical scholarship into lesson plans. Susan organized and publicized the seminars (20 or so a year), persuaded her colleagues at Rutgers and other universities around the state to participate (Who could say no to Susan?), and cajoled teachers to attend and school administrators to sponsor their teachers. Susan was still working and worrying about the institute until the week she passed away. It was for everyone who worked with her on this project a great pleasure and privilege.
Susan was a superlative mentor to her graduate students. She had a keen sense of intellect and generosity of spirit that enriched the research, pedagogy, and lives of her students and colleagues, and she challenged her students to think critically and creatively. She was always encouraging and warm. She offered insightful counsel, always with grace and wit. Her kindness and compassion for her graduate students were a model for us all. One of her students remarked, “Susan was more than a mentor to me. She was my friend during my graduate days, allowing me to vent, supporting me through the research and writing of my dissertation, and giving wise counsel on issues we all face with work/life balance—especially child rearing. She allowed me to be me, and while she never judged and was always supportive, she was also ‘correcting’ me, making me a better person, more generous, more appreciative of life and of people, and she also made me a better historian and teacher.”
Her humor was present even in the face of terrible adversity. Shortly after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she e-mailed one of her students to say that her doctors had given her three months to live, noting wryly that she wanted to be at the student’s dissertation defense and asking if she could “please hurry it up.” The dissertation defense took place four months later. Thankfully for us all, she lived five and a half more years.
Susan was generous to scholars outside Rutgers as well. She spent many hours productively working with Jonathan and Maxine Lurie. With a keen eye for details and common sense, and with good humor, she was “the best copy editor they had ever known.” Susan’s kindness to colleagues, undergraduates, and graduate students was legendary.
As a scholar of the environment, Susan Schrepfer was in the forefront of her field. As a dedicated teacher at all levels, from high schools to graduate programs, she was a model for her peers. Even in her last years of impossible pain, Susan maintained her good cheer and deep regard for others. The department, the university, and the profession were enriched and uplifted by her presence.
1. Char Miller, “A Woman of the Woods: Susan R. Schrepfer, 1941–2014,” KCET, April 9, 2014, http://www.kcet.org/news/the_back_forty/commentary/susan-schrepfer-a-woman-of-the-woods.html.
2. Sackman, Douglas Cazaux, “Nature’s Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism,” Reviews in American History 34, no. 2 (2006): 208.
Rutgers University Press
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