An incalculable loss to history, and students of history – Werner E. Warmbrunn

July 25, 2009

Americans create great colleges. Our greatest national product is higher education. Within a few decades after Europeans landed in the Americas, colleges were created to spread knowledge to keep the colonies, and then the new nations, on the cutting edge of history and science.  Mostly they’ve worked well.  The world comes to our institutions of higher learning to learn, and to steal ideas about how to make that process work in their own nations.

In the 20th century we saw the founding in California of the Claremont Colleges, one of the most recent and most ambitious efforts to create a community of scholarship for undergraduates and graduates. The Claremont Colleges include Harvey Mudd College, Pomona College, Scripps College, Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College, Claremont Graduate University, and Keck Graduate Institute.  Pomona College dates from 1887, but the other colleges in the community all arose after 1925 (Claremont Graduate University).   Harvey Mudd was founded in 1955, Pitzer in 1963, and the Keck Institute in 1997.

Werner Warmbrunn came to Pitzer College as one of the small pioneering group of original faculty in 1963, the first year of the school.   On one hand, it’s exciting to be in on the creation of a great institution.  On the other hand, the philosophy of the Claremont Colleges is that faculty, though of first rate intellect, will spend a great deal of their time with students.  Demands of working with undergraduates probably hinders some of the faculty from achieving the great renown they could have achieved at other universities.  Students grow to love that system.  Some faculty yearn for other pastures, and strike out after a while for other academic homes.

Warmbrunn stuck it out at Pitzer.

I found this press release, on his death on July 19, 2009:

Professor Emeritus Werner E. Warmbrunn Dies

Claremont, Calif (July 23, 2009) – Werner Warmbrunn, founding member of the Pitzer College faculty and founding dean of faculty, died peacefully at home on July 19, 2009 at the age of 89.

Professor Warmbrunn was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1920. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1941. After receiving his degree from Cornell University, he began his teaching career at Putney School in Vermont. He received his PhD from Stanford University, where he later served in a variety of administrative posts for 12 years. In 1963, he was recruited by Pitzer’s first president, John Atherton.

Professor Warmbrunn helped design the academic programs for the new college in months before and after the arrival of Pitzer’s pioneer class of students. He is perhaps best known for his work in developing Pitzer’s unique community governance structure. He served on many committees, including the Faculty Executive Committee and two presidential search committees. Professor Warmbrunn ensured that Pitzer’s history would be recorded by founding an archive where papers, announcements and documents were preserved.

A passionate and committed teacher, Professor Warmbrunn was a recipient, in 1985, of the Pitzer College Alumni Association’s Academic Excellence Award. He received a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship to continue his research on Belgium under German occupation during World War II. He became a professor emeritus in 1991.

Warmbrunn’s published works include The Dutch Under German Occupation and The German Occupation of Belgium. In recent years, he was active in the Claremont Democratic Club, serving as a senior author of The Claremont Manifesto.

He is survived by his wife, Loretta; daughters Erika and Susan; his step-children Linda Schone, Wes Fretter, Dianna Davis and Cynthia Fretter; and his grandchildren Andrea, Breanna, Zach, Matt and Lindsey.

A private family memorial will be held. Donations in honor of Professor Warmbrunn can be made to Pitzer College, where a scholarship will be created in his name.

A public memorial will occur at Pitzer College this fall.

About Pitzer College

Pitzer College is a nationally top ranked undergraduate liberal arts institution. A member of The Claremont Colleges, Pitzer offers a distinctive approach to a liberal arts education by linking intellectual inquiry with interdisciplinary studies, cultural immersion, social responsibility and community involvement. For more information, please visit

Of course that’s not the whole story. You need more information about Prof. Warmbrunn — and you will find it in this touching remembrance at Rational Rant, from sbh in Portland, one of Warmbrunn’s students. Go read that account.

Not a class day goes by that a student does not ask, “Why do we study history?”  Every good history teacher has a patterned response, sometimes including quoting Santayana, sometimes just recounting a great failure that could have been avoided had someone who should have known better, actually known history.  Sometimes the answer involves a great victory or leap forward, made possible by understanding the past.

Reality is more complex.  Sometimes just the study of history itself is the object.  Studying history under a teacher like Warmbrunn will not be recorded in the history books per se, as the study of history.  We can never overestimate the effects of such careful tutelage on the course of history, on the making of history.  History flows like a river.  Studying history is like fording the river — and sometimes a student needs someone skilled at fording the river to get the student across.  Sometimes that river is a Rubicon, or a Vistula, or a Rhine, or Mississippi, or Delaware, or Missouri, or Colorado, and getting a student safely to the mouth or the other side, makes all the difference.

Nota bene:

And see:

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