Bruce C. Nelson (1951–2011)
Richard J. Altenbaugh, Slippery Rock University, January 2012
Historian of the Working Class
Bruce C. Nelson, a noted historian of late-19th-century working-classes, died of cancer on August 23, 2011. His passion for life knew few bounds, leaving a legacy of generosity, friendship, and scholarship.
Born October 28, 1951, he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Northern Illinois University where Alfred F. Young served as his dissertation adviser. He also participated in the Newberry Library's summer workshop on quantitative history and regularly attended the Chicago Area Labor Group. Bruce took his love for history, his solid grasp of the craft, and his incredible work ethic wherever he went and applied it to whatever he pursued.
His book, Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, 1870–1900, which grew out of his doctoral dissertation, was a major reinterpretation of the socialist-anarchist movement at the heart of the Haymarket Affair of 1886. It has been frequently cited by historians. Bruce drew heavily on foreign language newspapers and archives both here and abroad to reconstruct Chicago's immigrant working-class culture. He also made major use of quantitative methods to incorporate crucial census data. He published articles that grew out of this innovative research in Chicago History, The Haymarket Scrapbook, and International Labor and Working Class History. He also contributed a chapter to The German-American Radical Press: The Shaping of a Left Political Culture edited by Kenneth Fones-Wolf and James Philip Dansky.
Bruce's research over the past two decades focused on class dimensions of religion in late-19th- and early-20th-century Chicago. He scoured membership records of innumerable congregations, Roman Catholic parishes, and synagogues to track the roles, contributions, and religiosity of individuals. An early glimpse of this promising work appeared as "Revival and Upheaval: Religion, Irreligion, and Chicago's Working Class in 1886" in the Journal of Social History. His untimely death interrupted this important scholarly quest.
Bruce relished his interactions with undergraduate and graduate students, earning a reputation as a rigorous yet nurturing instructor in American history at Northern Illinois University, Central Michigan University, and Columbia College.
He served as managing editor of the History of Education Quarterly for nine years while it was based at Slippery Rock University. He assisted in introducing that journal's digital version, meticulously copyedited all articles and book reviews, oversaw production, and supervised office staff. That journal's authors, graduate assistants, and staff members, as well as university colleagues, found him delightful as an adviser and workmate.
In a broader sense, Bruce served as a mentor to many of his colleagues, students, and other scholars. He unselfishly dedicated much of his time to them, offering incisive insights and criticisms, refining their thinking and clarifying their writing through tireless editing.
As a fervent baseball fan he coached boys' baseball teams for over a decade and remained ever loyal to his beloved Chicago Cubs, attending home and away games every chance he had. No matter where he resided he maintained fond memories of his hometown of Chicago.
Bruce dearly loved his family. He adored his soul mate, Frances Mateyko, and expressed constant pride in his son, Erik.