Remarks of Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University
It seems appropriate to begin by telling one of my favorite jokes—one that Larry told me two decades ago. Oddly, Larry, whose memory for jokes never ceased to amaze me, much later informed me he that he didn’t remember the joke or telling it to me. But I could only have heard it from Larry and it is, I think, very fitting to my topic for this afternoon—Larry as colleague at George Mason.
The joke describes someone running into a friend who tells him that he has joined the newly formed Yeshiva rowing team.
“Really,” he says, “I had no idea that they had such a team.”
“Yes, they decided that since the Ivy League schools all had crew teams this would be a way to upgrade our image. And next week, we row against Harvard.”
A few weeks go by and he runs into his friend again and asks: “Nu, how did the big race, go?”
“Not so good. It turns out that among the goyim, it’s eight people row and only one person shouts.”
Larry Levine did a lot of talking, kibitzing, and shouting. He was, as his old friend Leon Litwack says, “a presence” in any gathering—a dinner party, a classroom, or a department meeting. But he also did a great deal of rowing. His relaxed geniality sometimes disguised this, but he was an incredibly hard worker, not only in his brilliant books, which are marked by deep research, but also here at Mason where he was a dedicated teacher and department member. He was always out there rowing for our students and for us.
Over the decade that Larry worked at Mason, I had many conversations with historian colleagues around the country who were surprised to learn that Larry had left Berkeley and come to a much less well-known university in Northern Virginia. I would immediately explain how well this had worked out, noting how many people of Larry’s stature who move to a second job like this after retirement treat it as a kind of sinecure, a comfortable place to keep their hand in and draw a handsome check. But, Larry, I would note, took his responsibilities with great seriousness—he served on committees, taught large numbers of students, accepted dozens of independent readings courses, attended every departmental function, and almost never missed a department meeting.
2 I must admit that I initially was not so sure that it would work out so well. In the spring of 1994, Larry called me to say that he was thinking about taking the early retirement package that the University of California was foolishly offering to people like him. “Would there be a chance of a position for one-semester per year for him at George Mason?” I could hardly restrain my excitement and as soon as I got off the phone, I started making calls to tell our chair, Marion Deshmukh, and other colleagues about this once-in-a department’s lifetime opportunity. Fortunately, they all shared my enthusiasm, and an offer was made literally within a week.
But, in the midst of my excitement, I did have a nagging worry. Larry had spent more than thirty years at one of the nation’s most selective and distinguished universities. How would he fare at a much less established and more heterogeneous place like Mason? The answer turned out to be--extremely well; indeed, I think that Larry might have acknowledged that however much he loved Berkeley, he enjoyed his time at Mason more. Larry, as our friend Shane White has said, was “aggressively egalitarian”—a spirit that infused not just his personal life but also his path breaking books like Black Culture, Black Consciousness; High Brow/Low brow; The Opening of the American Mind; and The President and the People, which he compiled and edited with his extraordinary wife Cornelia. “In some sense, deep in his soul,” Jeffrey Stewart recently wrote me, “Larry was a man who had seen the little guy take a beating from all of the people with the megaphone in their hands, and he decided to answer back.”
Larry’s egalitarianism and multi-culturalism proved a perfect fit with a school like George Mason. He saw here some of what he loved about City College, which he attended in the 1950s. Larry’s own background was anything but elite. As he freely admitted, he was an “absolute screw up” as a high school student and his path into academe began in night school—that era’s equivalent of community college where so many Mason students begin. And Larry, as the son of immigrants, found himself surrounded at Mason with newcomers to both America and higher education. This was amusingly demonstrated when Larry gave a wonderful commencement address here a few years ago and talked about his Lithuanian born father and afterwards was surrounded by a broadly smiling, large family who started speaking to him in Lithuanian, which Larry, of course, could not understand.
In truth, I should not have worried about how Larry would fare at Mason. I had long experienced Larry’s disdain for academic hierarchy, starting when I first met him almost exactly twenty-five years ago when we served together on a planning committee at the National Museum of American History. Despite the shared committee service, we couldn’t have been more different in status. Larry was a Regents fellow at the Smithsonian; he had published his path breaking study of black culture five years earlier to great acclaim and the next winter (1983) he would become the first US historian to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. I, by contrast, was an assistant professor in my first year teaching here, struggling to write my lectures and to finish my first book.
I had plenty of reasons to want to get to know this eminent senior scholar, but I would be hard pressed to say why he would want to talk to me. But it was Larry who came up to me and suggested that we have lunch. I was obviously not the first young scholar in whom Larry took an interest, and I would not be the last. In his years at Mason, Larry’s date book was consistently full with lunch appointments with younger colleagues and graduate students.
3 You can read about this in the dozens of recollections gathered in the wonderful website that Mike O’Malley has set up (and to which I urge you to contribute). Here’s what Michele Greet writes: “What an incredibly generous man! I joined the GMU faculty two years ago and even though my area (Latin American art history) was very different from Larry's, he immediately took an interest in my work. When I mentioned to him that my husband is an actor trying to establish himself in the DC area, he invited us both to dinner to introduce us to a good friend of his who is a prominent actor. We were completely taken aback by his interest and generosity.” Meredith Lair noticed this even in the unlikely context of a job interview: “I only met Larry once, at an AHA interview . . .. It didn't feel like an interview--Larry's kindness and keen interest made it seem like a stimulating conversation.” Suzy Smith, who started at Mason the same year as Larry, writes, “The contrast between our two points on the timeline of an academic career could not have been more dramatic. And, yet, upon meeting Larry, he had this incredible way of putting me at ease and reminding me that we were colleagues and members of the same "freshman class," as he liked to joke. Joe Crespino reports an experience that almost precisely mirrored mine: “I met Larry during a year I spent on a post-doc at George Mason. I had been on campus about three weeks, had seen Larry only in passing and was trying to get up the gumption to invite him to lunch when I turned a hall corner, bumped into him, and he asked me if I wanted to get a bite to eat.”
I suppose that if I were a more spiritual person, I would end by saying that Larry is here with us. But what I would rather say is that after the shouting is over, Larry’s legacy remains in all his rowing—his generosity to colleagues, his mentoring of students and younger scholars, his groundbreaking historical writing, and his wonderful jokes. That is how Larry is still here with us and will remain with us.
For many of us, those initial lunches stretched into dozens of meals and into years of jokes, insight, provocation, and friendship. “For 42 years,” Leon Litwack writes in the Journal of American History tribute that we will be handing out as people leave the service, “I have valued Larry as a close friend, . . ., as a much-valued critic, as a historian whose work influenced my own view of how to re-create the lives, thoughts, and expression of men and women long absent from the narrative.” And, of course, Larry did not forget those who became lifelong friends even while he befriended numerous younger scholars and students. That was true in even the most difficult circumstances. I will always remember his generosity expressed in the regular phone calls that he and Cornelia made during the final months of his life to check on me and our shared struggle with cancer. My final lessons from Larry turned out to be about facing adversity with good humor rather than about understanding humor as a window into cultural history, as he had thirty years earlier in Black Culture and Black Consciousness.
Leon Litwack told me the story of how in the week before Larry died, Cornelia and some members of the family were discussing whom to invite to the small, private funeral service. From the other room, came Larry’s shout: “I’ll be there.”