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Stuart McConnell

Pitzer professor, author, family man

Stu McConnell, professor emeritus of history at Pitzer College, died February 14 at Pilgrim Place after a years-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 62, and had lived and taught in Claremont for more than half his life.

Stuart Charles McConnell was born in Stoughton, Wisconsin, on July 24, 1956, the first child of James and Marcia (Larson) McConnell. Stu and his siblings, Steve and Sue, spent their childhood in small towns across the upper midwest, as their peripatetic educator parents pursued greater opportunities in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan’s upper peninsula. Summers centered around camping vacations and trips to the Chicago area, to visit grandparents and cousins and share in the family affliction, rooting for the Chicago Cubs.

He graduated from Michigan’s Marquette Senior High School in 1974, after bedeviling the administration as founder and editor of the Chimera underground newspaper. He attended the University of Michigan, serving as managing editor of the Michigan Daily and treasurer of the Lenny Bruce co-op, then joined the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in Colorado as a reporter after graduation in 1978. It was in Grand Junction that he met his future wife, television journalist Rebecca Franko, when both were assigned to cover a school board meeting.

The excitement of local journalism was not enough to overcome the lure of the family business—the teaching of history—and in 1981, he returned to academia as a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Hopkins, studying under the eminent historian John Higham and focusing on post-Civil War America, particularly social and labor history. His research on Union Army veterans took him to archival collections across the Northeast and Midwestern United States, including the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts State House in Boston, and memorial organizations in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

While still completing his dissertation, Stu and Rebecca married in 1984 in her hometown of Salem, Oregon. Following stints together in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and El Paso, Texas, the couple moved to Claremont in 1987 when Mr. McConnell joined the Pitzer faculty.

His book, Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1992. He received tenure in 1994 and advanced to full professorship in 1999. After more than 30 years of service, he officially retired from Pitzer in spring 2018, though he taught one course as an emeritus professor in fall 2018 and had hoped to continue doing so into retirement.    

He was a devoted teacher who prioritized students before other academic pursuits. His courses were always popular (despite a heavy reading load), and he boasted a broad teaching repertoire, ranging from his core fields of 19th century social and cultural history to the Great Depression, journalism in America, and the atomic bomb.

He also opened his home to students, hosting spaghetti dinners with screenings of Death of a Salesman for his first-year seminars and keeping alive the cherished Pitzer tradition of an off-campus party organized by faculty for graduating seniors. Over the years, he kept in touch with many Pitzer alumni, getting together with them for a meal or museum visit wherever he traveled. During his retirement dinner in October 2018, former students flew in from across the country to honor him and share their memories of his profound impact on their lives.

In addition to his tireless work in the classroom, he believed passionately in promoting the teaching of history within the local community. Alongside Ellen Harper of the Folk Music Center, he curated a concert entitled “Songs of Work and Resistance” in 2010, which featured local musicians performing traditional ballads of the labor movement.

He regularly participated in public events as a representative of the historical profession, such as giving remarks to contextualize a screening of Robert Redford’s political thriller The Company You Keep at Claremont’s Laemmle Theater in 2013.

Most notably, from 2010 to 2012, he was the lead scholar for a US Department of Education “Teaching American History Grant,” awarded jointly to Pitzer and the Pomona Unified School District in 2009. Under the auspices of this grant, which provided federal funding to improve the teaching of American history at the primary through high school levels, he shared his professional and pedagogical expertise with PUSD teachers, even chaperoning a visit to historical sites in Washington, DC.

Above all else, however, he was devoted to his family: reading bedtime stories, helping with homework, doling out “dad” chores like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash, and spending countless hours watching his daughter play soccer and his son play baseball. He coached a few of his son’s Little League teams, keeping detailed statistics that were the envy of the other coaches. He was always available for that difficult math problem or a lesson on American history, with many conversations beginning at the dinner table and continuing long into the evening. He specialized in meticulously-planned family vacations, from a seven-thousand-mile summer road trip in 1995 dubbed “the great western journey,” to regular beach weeks with lifelong friends from Hopkins at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

He loved all kinds of music, especially live performances, and was a generous supporter of Southern California radio stations KJazz and Classical KUSC. He was a connoisseur of good food and wine who enjoyed cooking for friends and trying new restaurants around town. Weekends often found him relaxing on the couch with a New York Times crossword puzzle, doing laundry and tending to the garden, watching Michigan football or basketball, and of course, Major League Baseball, especially his beloved Chicago Cubs. His family will be forever grateful that he got to see the Cubs finally win the World Series in 2016.

He is survived by his wife Rebecca; children Alexander and Leah; brother Stephen and sister Susan.

A celebration of his life will be held later this spring on the Pitzer campus. Donations in his memory may be made to the Stu McConnell Fund for History at givecampus.com/schools/pitzercollege/stu-mcconnell-fund-for-history.