Index of Memorial Resolutions and Biographical Sketches

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William H. Goetzmann, one of the most distinguished humanists to serve on the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin in recent times and one of the most distinctive personalities on campus, died on September 7, 2010. He joined the Department of History in 1964 and founded the program (now department) of American studies in 1967, all the while compiling a distinguished record of scholarship in a variety of fields and a reputation as a compelling and demanding teacher. Born in 1930 and raised in Houston, Texas, he attended Yale University, thanks to an Abernathy-Macy and work scholarships, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with highest departmental (American studies) honors in 1952. He continued at Yale for his Ph.D., writing on what would become one of his main passions: the exploration of the West. “The Corps of Topographical Engineers in the Exploration and Development of the Trans-Mississippi West” won Bill Goetzmann the John Addison Porter Prize in 1957 for best university doctoral dissertation. It was published in 1959 as Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 during the seven years Bill taught at Yale.

Professor Goetzmann came to the history department at The University of Texas at Austin in 1964 and immediately began constructing a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. curriculum and assembling a faculty in American studies. UT Austin’s American studies program soon emerged as a leader in the field. Its visibility increased enormously when Goetzmann’s second book, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and Scientist in the Winning of the American West (1966), won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize in History and the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians as well as several other awards. The years that followed saw him expand his interests in the art and photography of the West, Modernism, and, in fact, just about every realm of American cultural life. New books and scores of articles, reviews, and lectures established him as a major voice in American academic life. He also sought a wider audience with popular works on the West and American thought, including the widely acclaimed PBS documentary series, The West of the Imagination (1986). High honors included the presidency of the American Studies Association (1974-75) and elected fellowship in the Texas State Historical Association (1989), the American Philosophical Society (1999), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2000), to name just a few.

The University honored him as well. He became Stiles Professor of History in 1967 and held the Dickson, Allen & Anderson Centennial Professorship in American Studies and History from 1984 until 1989, the year he was given the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History and American Studies. His great love, however, was the American studies program. He served as its director until 1980 and remained a departmental force until retirement in 2005. Neither scholarship nor administrative duties prevented him from directing over sixty doctoral dissertations and fifty master’s theses and imbuing in his students a commitment to daring and thoroughgoing, innovative research that propelled them to positions of leadership in their various fields and institutions. He inspired fear, trembling, hard work, and devotion among those who studied with him. They understood that he was asking of them no more than he asked of himself. Most of all, he was, at his best, the living model of a mind on fire—humorous, outrageous, mesmerizing—a creator of ideas and insights who held seminars and lecture audiences under the spell of his own joy.

As is sometimes the case with men and women of genius, Bill Goetzmann could also inspire disdain and controversy. His outsized presence filled any room, and his at times mercurial mood swings and ill-tempered actions and remarks made him a controversial and often difficult colleague. This was especially true in his last years of active faculty service, when ill health demanded medical treatments whose side effects accentuated what had once been simply less attractive sides to a boisterous, all-consuming personality.  

In the end, however, the rich legacy of scholarship, institution building, and the training of generations of new scholars is what will remain. A particularly insightful appraisal, written by Stephen J. Pyne, MacArthur Fellow and Regents’ Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and a Goetzmann student and eminent scholar in his own right, appeared shortly after Bill’s death. It is attached here with the author’s permission.


William Powers Jr., President
The University of Texas at Austin


Sue Alexander Greninger, Secretary
The General Faculty

This memorial resolution was prepared by Professor Robert Abzug.