[The Montana Professor 16.1, Fall 2005 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Harry Fritz, Montana Historian

Richard Drake

--Richard Drake
Richard Drake

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education named Harry Fritz the CASE Montana Professor of the Year in 2004. The Institute, which seeks to advance and support education on a worldwide basis, launched its U.S. Professors of the Year Program in 1981 with the idea of honoring undergraduate teaching. The Program's judges consider contributions to undergraduate education in the community and in the profession, as well as in the classroom. From hundreds of candidates nationwide, one winner is selected from each state.


Harry has been building his résumé for this award since 1967, when he commenced his teaching career as an instructor in the Department of History at UM. He did not begin the job as a stranger to Missoula. A graduate of Missoula County High School in 1956, he atoned for four misspent years as a chemistry major at Dartmouth College by coming to UM for an M.A. in history. Properly focused on what would be his life's work, he went to Washington University in St. Louis to study for a Ph.D. in American history. He would have preferred to write a dissertation on his beloved St. Louis Cardinals, but instead chose for a topic the more professionally presentable--in those distant days when Dead White Males were the only specimens for historical research--"The Collapse of Party: President, Congress, and the Decline of Party Action (1809-1817)." From the outset of his academic career he had an uncanny sense for bestseller possibilities.

--Harry Fritz
Harry Fritz

Harry then returned to Missoula with his gracious wife, Nancy, a gifted linguist who would become a respected teacher of Spanish at Sentinel High School and, later, a Representative in the state legislature. Two children would be born to them, Dan and Stacey.


Bill Farr recalls that he, Harry, Dave Emmons, Bob Dozier, and Bob Lindsay all arrived at UM the same year. The previous year H. Duane Hampton, Bob Peterson, and Bill Evans had come. This cohort formed the nucleus of the History Department for decades, and now only Bill Farr and Harry remain in active service. Reflecting on the nearly forty years of their professional relationship, Bill described Harry as "an outstanding colleague" who never has been petulant or small-minded. He has made his presence felt as a strongly positive force in all three areas of university life: publishing, teaching, and service.

Harry tried writing about sex once, in a 1976 paper entitled "Sex and Identity in Early America: Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson." This tale of interracial sex involving one of the Founding Fathers did not provide Harry with a breakthrough opportunity as a writer. On the basis of what he told the Western Social Science Association in Tempe, Arizona, no offers came pouring in from publishers eager to hear more from him on the subject. His mighty book still awaited its mighty theme.

By the early 1980s Harry had sworn off interracial sex completely as a topic for historical research. 1981 stands out as the year of discovery in his intellectual biography. Following the death that year of the legendary K. Ross Toole, Harry volunteered to teach the Montana history course. Dave Emmons, who was the Department chairman at the time, describes this act as one of generous collegiality on Harry's part. He had to move well beyond his field in the early National period and become a Western historian. Dave remembers:

"It was not his field; he had never taught it before. I doubt he even had a single lecture from his other courses that he could use. And he had about ten days to get ready. I don't know of anyone else anywhere in the academy who would have done what Harry did. He saved me, the department, and the next generation of UM students." This new course transformed Harry's research agenda. Like Dante standing for the first time before the transfixing gaze of Beatrice, Harry had found his inspiration. From this point on he seized upon Montana as his main subject.

Harry's books and articles constitute an important body of work. His edited anthologies include Montana and the West: Essays in Honor of K. Ross Toole (1984), with Rex C. Myers; The Montana Heritage: An Anthology of Historical Essays (1992), with Robert R. Swartout, Jr.; and Montana Legacy: Essays on History, People, and Place (2002), with Mary Murphy and Robert Swartout, Jr. The two books that he wrote, Montana: Land of Contrast (1984, rev. ed. 2001) and The Lewis and Clark Expedition (2004) established his credentials as a leading authority on the history of the state. Dan Flores, Harry's colleague and a premier historian of the West, calls him "the existing dean of Montana historical studies."

Montana, Land of Contrast is not a work of original research, but it performs a valuable function as a popular text. As Barbara Tuchman observed during one of her periodic scoldings of the history profession, someone has to translate the often abstruse scholarship of archival researchers into readable stories. Stephen Ambrose was perhaps the greatest practioner in our time of popular history. What Ambrose did in a grand international way, Harry did on a Montana scale in his first book. Tuchman thought that without such popular authors, history would lead a fugitive existence among a handful of specialists and would fail in its paramount mission, to provide mankind with a sense of the past and a fund of wisdom for future action.

In 2004, the Faculty Evaluation Committee of the History Department presented The Lewis and Clark Expedition as the principal justification for Harry's merit raise that year. Calling it "the culmination of his long experience in both teaching and doing research on Lewis and Clark," the FEC judged it to be a major scholarly contribution to the field of American history. Linda Frey of the UM History Department served as an editor for the Series in which Harry's book appeared, the Greenwood Guides to historic events from 1500 to 1900. She described the book as a "pithily written and cleverly conceived" work of synthesis.

Asked to identify Harry's most important articles, Dan Flores unhesitatingly cited his "Best Books about Montana" surveys of 1982 and 2002 for Montana: The Magazine of Western History. By sending out questionnaires to Montana readers, Harry identified the most influential books on the subject. He concluded that "Montanans are changing their reading habits, shifting from dramatic, romantic, blood-and-guts 19th-century frontier drama to modern memoirs, novels, and travelogues." Joseph Kinsey Howard's Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome and K. Ross Toole's Montana: An Uncommon Land remain extremely influential interpretations of the state's history. Both of these historians viewed Montana as an exploited colony of the East. An equally powerful image that Montanans have of themselves, however, comes from the work of Ivan Doig, the author who received the most votes in Harry's second survey. Doig's beautifully nostalgic evocation in This House of Sky of hardy Montanans rising to meet the challenges imposed by our majestic but harsh landscape is perhaps the way we now prefer to view ourselves. Dan described Harry's work on the shifting literary tastes of the state as an important contribution to our cultural history.

By a strict interpretation of the CASE Institute's guidelines, Harry's research record would not necessarily have brought him to the attention of the judges in the U.S. Professors of the Year program. Undergraduate teaching alone is supposed to determine their selections. In fact, though, Harry's books and articles bear directly on his teaching record. As Leopold von Ranke, the great nineteenth-century German historian observed, more than anything else the capacity to produce and to publish scholarly work gives a professor the right to stand before a university audience. By the logic of Ranke's dictum, teaching at the university level requires every professor to be engaged in an active research program.

In the classroom, Harry has been an invaluable piece of manpower for the History Department. Teaching approximately a thousand students per year in the U.S. survey, Montana history, and his heavily subscribed upper-division courses in nineteenth-century American history, he is a workhorse beyond compare. Harry's longtime colleague, Paul Gordon Lauren, describes his teaching load as "completely off the normal scale." The quality of his teaching matches its quantity. With his vast knowledge, he illuminates the past; with his excellent sense of humor, he humanizes it.

Generations of UM students have passed through his survey course in American history. Over the years student evaluations for this course have teemed with praise for the wit, verve, and color of his lectures. The History Department could not have a better man than Harry behind the lectern in the first history classroom that our freshmen visit. The flourishing state of the Department, with its strong enrollments and high number of majors is in large part a monument to Harry's gift for communicating his love of history to the great multitudes of freshmen he teaches every year.

Keith Edgerton, formerly a UM graduate student and now a professor himself at MSU-Billings, explains the classroom success of Harry in large part as a consequence of his humor and charisma. Keith recalls with admiration Harry's enlivening gift for hilarious anecdote: "You know that at some point during one of his lectures or talks there is going to be something funnier than hell." Harry possesses the all-seeing eye for the telling detail. For example, how more unforgettably to illustrate the harsh winter conditions faced by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in North Dakota than to describe the frozen member of York the slave. Harry has a million of these vignettes, which, with his deft sense of timing and booming delivery, he weaves into larger course themes. As for charisma, his imposing physical stature and presence stand in the sharpest possible contrast, in Keith's words "to the mostly anti-social, stereotypically mousy bow-tie types that one often thinks of (and encounters at the American Historical Association all-too-frequently)."

Keith mentioned another very important aspect of Harry's success as a teacher: his long experience in the political arena. He served in the Montana legislature as a state representative from 1985 to 1989 and as a senator from 1991 to 1995. Keith notes that as a political figure, "he has written and spoken extensively on nearly every Montana public policy issue of contemporary concern." Such experiences give Harry's Montana history course a special force that only comes from lived experience. Thucydides, the Athenian general, and Julius Caesar, the Roman general, writing about wars in which they actually fought possess an existential command of the subject matter that no academic historian could duplicate. With such historical precedents in mind, we can well understand why Harry adopted as the informal title of his "Great Historians" course "From Herodotus to Harry."

Charles E. "Abe" Abramson, who since the 1960s has taken every one of Harry's courses on the way to amassing--by his own count--some 2,000 unofficial credits at UM, calls him "the best platform lecturer" he's ever heard. Over the past four decades, Abe has heard all of the institution's premier teachers. Harry's capacity to hold an audience and to make history accessible has no equal, in Abe's vast experience. While still in the military service and stationed in Great Falls, he once traveled ninety miles to hear Harry lecture. We have heard of students traveling ninety miles and more to get away from some classroom instructors, but Harry's magnetic appeal has the opposite effect.

Adrienne McKelvey, a current student in the Montana history course, joins in the generations-long tradition of UM students in celebrating Harry. A sophomore history major, she describes him as being "a wildly popular" teacher. Asked why he enjoyed such high approval ratings, she responded first by describing the classroom atmosphere of the course. Four hundred students fill the Music Recital Hall to capacity for Harry's lectures. He never fails to hold them spellbound. Disdaining a mechanical reading of lecture notes, he talks directly to the students and presents history to them as a grand narrative. His stories--by turns amusing, stirring, and poignant--make history interesting for young people. Adrienne's description of Harry's classroom technique brings to mind the observation of Marc Bloch in The Historian's Craft, that no one ever has been drawn to the study and practice of history without taking pleasure in it: "certainly even if history were judged incapable of other uses, its entertainment value would remain in its favor."

It is not only the students who admire Harry's classroom prowess. Fred Skinner, his longtime colleague in the History Department, remembers their joint participation in the team-taught "Prophets of the Twentieth Century" course of more than twenty years ago. The format for the course called for two presentations by different instructors to be given each evening. For one of the classes, Harry was scheduled to give the second talk. During the first one, with Fred seated beside him, Harry "was writing out his lecture from scratch--in that inimitable printed penmanship of his...on the back of some (probably then) mimeographed sheets he was using as scrap paper." He then delivered "an absolutely outstanding lecture...that was both meaty and full of his typical humor. The students loved it."

In addition to teaching a full load of courses while serving as chairman of the Department, Harry advises more than eighty students each semester. The departmental average is about twenty. Student advising is one of the least heralded but most important tasks in university teaching. In his classic book on higher education, The Idea of a University (1854), Cardinal Newman stressed the need for teachers to make themselves available to students, to help them find their way: "an academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter; it will create an icebound, petrified, cast-iron University and nothing more." For Cardinal Newman, dedication to the advising of students in the broadest sense constituted the chief glory of a university teacher. As an advisor, Harry embodies the spirit of Newman's principle regarding stewardship. Harry meant it when he told the students at the Freshman Convocation Address on 27 August of this year, "You are the most important people at this University." He understands, as Newman did, that the university exists ultimately for the students. Without them, nothing that we do here could be accomplished. As their mentors, we owe them our supreme efforts.

Cardinal Newman also thought that the university, as one of society's chief humanizing institutions, should interact with the world. As a UM representative to the state and nation, Harry performs prodigies. A one-man acting troupe and speakers' bureau, he is the public face of the History Department. Appreciative audiences of school children and history buffs thrill to his wonderful presentations on Abe Lincoln and Lewis and Clark. With wit and learning, he magnificently represents the school on countless civic and educational occasions. We probably should have been paying him a generous annual finder's stipend for the many students he has attracted to the university.

Surveying the more than full page of varied items--including speeches, board responsibilities, and expert consulting jobs--that Harry listed for his service record one year, the Faculty Evaluation Chairman wrote in his report: "If this be normal service, we implore the administration to take pity on the rest of us in the Department when it comes time to examine the service component of our records."

Only when Harry retires will the magnitude of his service record become apparent to all. He makes service speaking look easy. Puccini performed the same sleight of hand composing operas. Ted Williams did the same thing hitting home runs. Once the pen and the bat were put down for the last time, people began to notice that something important and very hard to do on the level of pure artistic mastery had gone out of the world. Operas are still being written. Home runs are still being hit. But not as Puccini wrote them and Ted hit them. So it will be with service talks after the great Harry, UM's foremost ambassador, exits the scene.

For Harry's manifold scholarly accomplishments, he received the Governor's Humanities Award in 2003. Ken Lockridge of the UM History Department and Stuart E. Knapp, an emeritus professor at Montana State University-Bozeman, wrote the letter of nomination in support of his candidacy. Their letter belongs in the same category of praise as the panegyric of Thucydides for Pericles as the greatest Athenian of them all. They said of him, "People like Harry are the state, they weave together the affections, the jokes, and the traditions we all share, with the knowledge that must not be forgotten, in order to shape a common determination to face the future."

Ken and Stuart in particular emphasized the significance of Harry's countless talks for the Montana Committee of the Humanities. He has visited communities large and small across the state. The audiences in these places loved him for the same reasons that the students at UM have. In former UM Provost Don Habbe's words, quoted in the Governor's Humanities Award nomination letter:

Around the state...one soon became aware of how widely known and appreciated Harry Fritz was. An imposing presence, oratorical skills matched with a voice impossible to ignore, lots of humor, and plenty of accurate and interesting history all combined to make Harry Fritz welcome in every corner of the state. With his deft touch, history came alive. We need the humanities now as never before. We especially need humanists with missionary zeal and talent to educate us on the unique insights of the humanistic disciplines. Harry Fritz surely is one of those missionaries.

The Governor's Humanities Award letter concludes: "between his work in the state at large and his university lecturing, it is Harry's Montana that is the Montana in many of our minds."

Ken Lockridge made an illuminating comment about Harry to me several years ago following a UM History Department graduation ceremony. We just had begun at that time to hold departmental graduation exercises in the Gallagher Business Building as a sequel to the general commencement event that usually was held in the Adams Field House. On this particular occasion, with his departmental colleagues looking on, Harry gave one of his trademark addresses, full of droll commentary, to the graduating history majors and their families. He did his usual masterful job, alternately inspiring the audience with his vibrant faith in the abiding utility of history as a discipline for life and bringing the house down with volleys of laughter. As the ceremony drew to a close, Ken leaned over to me and said, in so many words, that when Harry retired either we would have to clone him or to create one of those talking replica figures like the one at Disneyland of Abe Lincoln; no one ever would be able to do this job as well as Harry. It should be added that he will be irreplaceable not only on graduation day. The CASE Institute teaching award reminds us that his varied gifts take in the whole range of requirements for success as a university professor.

[The Montana Professor 16.1, Fall 2005 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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