Fred L. Israel (1934–2019)
Editor of Historical Reference Books
Fred L. Israel, professor emeritus at the City College of New York (CCNY), died on June 15, 2019, in Pawlet, Vermont, at age 85. Born in Brooklyn, he graduated from CCNY in 1955, and received a master’s degree in 1956 and a PhD in history from Columbia University in 1959. He studied under Richard Hofstadter but always credited the help he received from William Leuchtenburg. He returned to City College, where he spent his entire teaching career, retiring in 1996.
At CCNY, Fred taught a memorable historical methodology seminar that introduced aspiring historians to microfilm, oral history, and archival research. He pressed his students to look beyond the headlines for secondary items that revealed more about life at the time. Frustrated in his attempts to assign a Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog from the 1890s, he was surprised to find that neither the college library nor the Library of Congress held any copies. After hunting used book stores and antiques shops, he finally resorted to placing ads in midwestern newspapers. This produced a single copy of an 1897 catalog. Recognizing the volume as “an authentic part of American culture, sociology, and history, an invaluable record from which we can gain insight into a by-gone era,” he had it reprinted in 1968. It captured public attention and sold widely.
Similar interests led him to contact George Gallup for permission to edit past Gallup polls into reference volumes. Fred recalled what happened in 2009, in his keynote speech at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting. Gallup invited him to his Princeton office, leaned back in his chair, puffed on his cigar, and asked, “Tell me, what did I do wrong in 1948?” Fred said he responded to the best of his ability, after which Gallup announced: “Professor, go ahead, save my polls for the historians.” Fred Israel edited three volumes of Gallup’s public opinion data covering 1935 to 1971 and then continued preparing annual reference books. He was also one of the authors of the massive study Winning the White House 2008: The Gallup Poll, Public Opinion, and the Presidency (2009).
After publishing a biography, Nevada’s Key Pittman (1963), Fred turned to editing reference works, beginning with The War Diary of Breckinridge Long (1966). With Leon Friedman, he edited The Justices of the United States Supreme Court (1969–2013), which received the Scribes Book Award from the American Society of Legal Writers. Joining with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., he edited History of American Presidential Elections (1971–2012), comprising original essays by leading scholars. His fruitful collaboration with Schlesinger produced many volumes, culminating in the richly illustrated Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images (1994), which reflected Fred’s fascination with campaign memorabilia.
Fred Israel also wrote and edited scores of short books for younger readers, in series including Know Your Government, World Leaders Past and Present, The Peoples of North America, The Immigrant Experience, Chronicles from National Geographic, The World 100 Years Ago, and Looking into the Past: People, Places and Customs. His primary historical interests remained political, as indicated by Ronald Reagan’s Weekly Radio Addresses (1987); Student’s Atlas of American Presidential Elections (1997); Presidential Documents: The Speeches, Proclamations, and Policies That Have Shaped the Nation from Washington to Clinton (2000); and My Fellow Citizens: The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States (2010).
Among his projects, Taught to Lead: The Education of the Presidents of the United States (2004) presented its essays as “a microcosm of American education since the 1750s.” He argued, “Teachers, tutors, parents, relatives, textbooks, novels, nonfiction and the Bible—each had an important part in the education of the presidents and therefore in shaping American history.”
Although an urbanite at heart, Fred left Manhattan for Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and finally to a remote and bucolic part of Vermont, its main drawback being its distance from New York City. Montreal was closer, however, and he came to appreciate that city as “a cosmopolitan oasis with an excellent symphony and a fairly good opera company.”
Donald A. Ritchie
US Senate Historian (emeritus)
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