Albert E. Van Dusen (1916-99)
Allen M. Ward, May 2000
Albert E. Van Dusen, known to his many friends and colleagues simply as "Van," former Connecticut State Historian, professor emeritus of history at the University of Connecticut, and lifetime member of the AHA, died on November 26, 1999, after a lengthy illness.
Born in Vilas, North Carolina, on May 14, 1916, he spent most of his early years in Syracuse, New York, where his father, Albert P. Van Dusen, was a professor of sociology. Van was a graduate of Northwood School in Lake Placid, New York, where he not only honed his academic skills but also developed abiding passions for baseball, mountain climbing, hiking, and skiing.
He came to Connecticut as a member of the class of 1938 at Wesleyan University, where he founded the Outing Club, majored in history, and began his lifelong interest in the period of the American Revolution and the contributions of Connecticut to American history in general. Inspired at Wesleyan by teachers such as George M. Dutcher and Hugh Brockunier, he went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his MA and PhD under such mentors as Conyers Read, Roy F. Nichols, and Richard H. Schryock.
During World War II, Van taught in the U.S. Navy V-12 program at Duke University and served in the army. After the war, and brief stints as a visiting teacher at Wesleyan University and as a historian for the Department of the Army at the Pentagon, Van joined the history department at the University of Connecticut, where he taught from 1949 to 1983. During those 34 years, he introduced a series of courses in Connecticut and American colonial and revolutionary history and helped to establish the PhD program. He directed its first completed dissertation and saw the completion of 11 others over the years. Devoted to teaching at all levels, and voted one of the university's five best teachers in 1964, Van was widely admired for his gentle humor, legendary field trips, graceful and enthusiastic lectures, matchless integrity, and solid professionalism.
Appointed Connecticut's State Historian by Governor John Lodge in 1952, Van was recognized upon his retirement in 1985 with a public proclamation by Governor William O'Neill for his devoted service to the preservation of Connecticut's heritage. During those years, he produced numerous books and articles on Connecticut's history, including two volumes of The Public Records of the State of Connecticut and Puritans Against the Wilderness, Connecticut History to 1763. His best known and most influential work, Connecticut), was a scholarly yet lavishly illustrated account of the state and its people from the earliest European contacts to 1960. The book went through five printings and sold over 33,000 copies. Unfortunately, failing health prevented Van from completing the editing and publication of the voluminous papers of Connecticut's Revolutionary War governor, Jonathan Trumbull, but he leaves a rich trove of about 35,000 documents collected from numerous archives in the United States and Europe and deposited in the University of Connecticut's special collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.
Always active in promoting the study of state and local history in Connecticut and elsewhere, Van was widely sought after as a speaker by local historical societies throughout New England and appeared on numerous radio and TV stations in Connecticut and New York. He worked to establish joint programs between the University of Connecticut and both Sturbridge Village and the Munson Institute at Mystic Seaport. He was a founder of the Mansfield Historical Society and the Association for the Study of Connecticut History, served on the council and various committees of the American Association for State and Local History, was a longtime trustee of the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society of Connecticut, chaired the publications committee of the Connecticut Historical Society, sat on the Centennial Observance Committee of the Mark Twain Memorial, was on the education committees of both Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation, and was an incorporator and trustee of the Stowe-Day Foundation. He was also an original member of the Connecticut State Historical Commission and served on both the Connecticut Historical Records Advisory Board and the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut.
Many awards followed Van's many years of service. He received the Director's Award from the Connecticut League of Historical Societies, the Association for the Study of Connecticut History honored him with the publication of a Festschrift "in recognition of outstanding and selfless service to Connecticut History," and the American Association for State and Local History presented him with its Award of Distinction for "his exemplary contributions to his field and profession."
Van is survived by his devoted wife of 53 years, Wilda E. Van Dusen, his former student at Duke, who ably assisted him in all of his endeavors. Together they established the Albert E. and Wilda E. Van Dusen Scholarship Fund to support graduate students in history at the University of Connecticut. Memorial contributions made out to UCF Van Dusen Scholarship may be sent to the Dept. of History, University of Connecticut, Box U-103, Storrs, CT 06269-2103.
—Allen M. Ward
University of Connecticut