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The University of Texas at Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs



Elspeth Davies Rostow

LBJ School of Public Affairs Invites You To Share Your Memories and Stories

With the unexpected death of Elspeth Rostow Sunday, America lost a elegant, articulate and brilliant educator.

After years at the highest ranks of education and public service during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Elspeth and her husband Walt moved to Austin in 1969. They loved Austin.(Elspeth had been Dean at American University while Walt held a number of foreign policy roles, including White House National Security Adviser).

In Austin, Elspeth became Dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. The LBJ School was led to new heights of excellence during her term as its dean. Her quiet but eloquent voice inspired her students and her faculty. To say she was beloved is no exaggeration.

Elspeth was a very close friend of both President and Mrs. Johnson, enlivening many times together with her wisdom and her humor. Elspeth served as a member of the LBJ Foundation board and a member of the board of the Southern Center in Atlanta.

She was one of the most remarkable women I ever knew.

Along with her many friends, the LBJ family and the LBJ Foundation board will miss her immensely.

We all are saddened by her passing.

Tom Johnson - Chairman, LBJ Foundation


In the last of many conversations I had with Elspeth, just a few days ago, I told her that my wife and I had been walking along Lake Austin when we saw a black swan.

Black swans are extremely rare; the phrase "black swan" has been used for hundreds of years as a metaphor for something that doesn't exist. According to Wikipedia, Europeans assumed there were no black swans until they were first seen off the coast of Australia in 1697. They are still extremely rare in North America.

The rarity of black swans has led to the use of the metaphor in philosophical discussions about falsifiability, particularly in the work of the philosopher of science Karl Popper. In April of this year, the statistician and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb published a remarkable book titled "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable," which incidentally is the number-one best-selling nonfiction book on Amazon.com for 2007. It's about the illusion of certainty that comes from predictable events. Taleb says that the world is most changed by "Black Swan events," which means unique, unpredictable products of accidents and luck. In an essay about his book in Forbes magazine last May, Taleb said, "we do know who society's winners will be: those who are prepared to face Black Swans, to be exposed to them, to recognize them when they show up and to rigorously exploit them." The title of the essay was "You Can't Predict Who Will Change The World."

This last piece of advice sounds a lot like Elspeth -- I wish I had known all this when I mentioned to her that I had seen a black swan on Lake Austin. When my wife and I heard the news yesterday that she had passed away, we knew that the black swan had been an omen that we didn't recognize -- except that I was given the opportunity to tell Elspeth about it, just before her death. I immediately thought about the richness of the image: grace, rarity, that regal quality that Leigh mentioned, and of course the portent of the color. The black swan on the lake was alone, as swans usually are not; I'm not a believer in omens or signs, but this was one that could not be ignored. In retrospect, it seems both eerie and perfectly natural at the same time.

Now, having discovered what the "black swan" means to philosophers, I'm even more struck by this coincidence, for truly Elspeth was a "black swan" among us. If routine interactions with other human beings were to understandably lead you to the certainty that people are vain, selfish, ungenerous, wicked creatures, then Elspeth was the "black swan" who disproved that by her simple existence. She was highly improbable, and to have known her was just pure luck.

Gary Chapman - LBJ School of Public Affairs


In late October of this year we had the good fortune to have Dean Rostow join the members of the Class of '82 who were in Austin celebrating our 25th year reunion. She joined us for dinner and spent several hours sharing stories, insights and yes, opinions. Her words were both wise and witty. We were so very fortunate to have her as our Dean and she will be greatly missed.

Blaine Bull - Austin, TX


In both of the classes I took from her, and in all of the private conversations I had with her, Professor Rostow's showed her verbal gifts to be unmatched. Every sentence was a marvel of economy, erudition, and/or insight. More than that, her quiet but obvious desire for her students to learn and grow was a powerful incentive for us to do just that. I am honored and grateful to have been one of her students.

Randy Fritz - Smithville, TX


It is because of Dean Rostow that I decided to attend the LBJ School in 1981. The school had several faculty members with whom I was eager to work, but it was Dean Rostow -- with her piercing gaze, her deep and thoughtful intelligence, her passion for excellence and her zeal to build an outstanding graduate institution -- who convinced me (through her presence alone) that at the LBJ School I would be able to do excellent work. Dean Rostow was nothing less than a legend, and I am honored to have known, studied under, and been inspired by her wise counsel.

Josh Levin - Washington, DC


I fondly recall my participation in Elspeth's 1974 Bicentennial Seminar on "The American Environment" sponsored by the UT Division of Comparative Studies and I thank her for her suppport for the School of Journalism and for The Urban Communication Foundation.

Gene Burd - Austin, TX


I was amazed at the power of her memory. She remembered events in Washington from 30 or 40 years ago like they happened yesterday. She must have known some health secrets for longevity and she surely read constantly. When I last saw her, she was as sharp as ever.

Scott McClain - Portland, OR - Class of 1988


Elspeth, wow, what a lady. After my 7th re-write she finally signed off on my Professional Report at the LBJ School, and hence my degree. In her home, in her office and in her classroom she was a "lady". I shall miss you my dear friend and mentor. None of us were too small or insignificant to be overlooked by your kindness and goodness. Thank you for showing me how to walk large across the book of life.

Lieutenant Colonel Andre Dean, US Army, student of Elspeth 1988. - Mission, TX


How fortunate I was to sign up for her course as an elective for my doctoral work. She is by far the most fascinating individual I've met at UT-Austin. Soft spoken, dignified, and witty with a wealth of life experiences that we can all only envy. I'm sure Walt is happy to have you back.

Rickey Williams - Devine, TX


I first met Elspeth when my wife (then-fiance) moved to Austin, I to go to LBJ & she to work on the Austin Project. Walt & Elspeth bowled us over with their energy, intellect, curiosity, graciousness, and disarming humor. I remember Elspeth patiently explaining to me the correct Texas way to pronounce "pecan," and telling just what a valuable survival skill that would be in Austin.

Elspeth & Walt were a magnificent couple. For our wedding, they gave us an unforgettable surprise gift: dinner at their house with them and Mrs. Johnson! Typical of them to provide such an unexpected, touching, and utterly perfect gift.

We miss them both so much. Elspeth was an inspiration to us, but more than that, such a kind and beloved friend.

Tom Woods - Columbia, MD


Professor Rostow had a unique way of presenting information that I will always remember. I was constantly fascinated by her many stories, sagacity, and experiences. Her impact on her students, including me, are beyond measure. Her wise counsel was solid, her rapier wit entertaining, and her benevolence legendary. I will never forget her or the many discussions we had. I send the best wishes to all of those she impacted, especially her family, in this time of sorrow.

Tim O'Brien - Austin, Texas - LBJ Class of 2005


One of my fondest memories at LBJ is the dinner that Elspeth and Walt hosted for students of her national security studies class. They performed a mean duet on the piano that capped a memorable night.

Alan Thomas - Fairfax, VA


Elspeth Rostow was an amazingly brilliant and kind person. As a student in two of her courses, I remember that she always had time for us, was ever willing to share stories from her Washington experience as well provide academic direction and advice when needed. The world is a sadder place without her, but a better place for having had her in it. She is truly missed.

Gilbert Zavala - Austin, TX


In a note to James K. Galbraith (Jamie) Jaget Mehta wrote....

Dear Jamie,

I am deeply grieved to hear about Elspeth. The last time I saw her must have been at the memorial service for Ken. Characteristically, she then took Vijay aside and told her in a whisper "You know I have always been in love with your father." That was her method of expressing her sustained affections for me over the years that I was in Austin.

In fact, she as Dean, chose me to come as Slick Professor in 1983. She gave me a once over in Cambridge (Mass) and in the Travellers Club in London.That was 1981-82. In 1983 when I got to Austin was the year that Max took over and she and Walt went round the world, including a visit to India. (My father travelled up to Jaipur to preside over a meeting addressed by Walt). I must have stayed with Walt and Elspeth many times. I enjoyed their hospitality at the Headliners, the Club, and many elegant restaurants. Above all, it was always a pleasure to be in their beautiful well-situated house Wild Doon Point. Dining in her home had an old world charm. To me she symbolized the best East Coast Patrician aristocracy, always elegant in dress, in expression, and also style of teaching and empathy for all those around her but never uncritical of superficiality at the meetings of "British studies."

It is my impresson that she laid the foundation of LBJ School of Public Affairs and gave it stature it acquired. It was characteristic of her that she continued to drive her own car, was punctilious about her teaching. She naturally had insights in Washington life during Kennedy and Johnson presidencies and American politics in general. She left her imprint as Director of the Institute of Peace and so many other institutions. The LBJ School, indeed the American academic life, will be poorer not to have somebody like her around. With Barbara Jordan and Elspeth Rostow gone, LBJ won’t be the same.

Kindly convey my sympathies to Peter, his sister, but more particularly to her granddaughter, who stayed with her for quite sometime.

Warm regards,
Jagat


When I arrived at the LBJ School in August 2006, everybody went out their way to make me feel welcome, but none more so than Elspeth Rostow. Within a week or so of my arrival, she invited me to join her at The Headliners' Club, where I would be her guest, along with my wife, on several other occasions. We were also her guests at the Westwood Club and at her home, and on each occasion we were keenly aware of how privileged we were to get to spend time with this remarkable woman.

Over the past few days, many have mentioned Elspeth's old world elegance and grace, and I can attest to the veracity of these observations. Although in private conversation she called me Greg, when others were around she would always address me as Mr. Ambassador. When my other esteemed colleagues at the LBJ School sometimes do that, it in jocular tones (the need for amusement ever present), but in Elspeth's case it was sincere, borne of a deep sense of propriety.

I had the good fortune to chat with Elspeth for a few minutes last Friday as she sat in the Dean's lounge before a meeting. After showing me the Pearl Harbor pin she was wearing, she told me she was busy revamping one of her courses -- not the normal pre-semester tweaking, she noted, but a fundamental rewriting of the course. The other day someone said that she always simply assumed that Elspeth would live and teach forever; so did Elspeth, it seems.

Greg Engle - LBJ School of Public Affairs


Professor Rostow struck me dumb the first time I met her. During 1st year orientation all the professors got up, introduced themselves, and made some pithy comment about how they thought we should pursue our studies. Professor Rostow said something about making sure to specialize so that when the time came for us to leave LBJ we could walk away with the title of "expert" in something. It wasn't what she said, but the graceful authority with which she said it that was so damned compelling.

I found myself in her office that afternoon. I have no idea what question I used as an excuse to go to her office hours, but what struck me dumb was that she didn't want to just answer questions, she wanted to know my opinion! I told her I majored in English in college and spent "a lot of time on poetry" and she asks me, "What kind of poetry, who are your favorite poets?"

So here I am, a dumb country boy from Lubbock, TX and she's asking me "What century did I think produce the best poetry?" I was so intimidated I told her I'd wasted enough of her time and promptly excused myself. Yet, I found myself returning many times while at LBJ."

It was a cultural experience walking in her office, she didn't want to just answer your question, she wanted to engage in a conversation to the fullest extent of the word, and she wanted me to engaged too.

I'm not sure I ever got to really tell her this (I tried once, but I was too sheepish to convey the sentiment I really meant) that she was the one who, in a conversation of ours, imparted to me the necessary confidence to grasp my dreams and make them my goals, rather than live with the two as separate.

Well Professor Rostow, if there is one thing I could say to you, it's that I have, and as the 20th Century poet Robert Frost said, "It has made all the difference." If, however, I were granted two things, I'd say thanks.

Matt Harriger - Austin, TX - Class of 2006


Although I wasn't her student I had the chance to meet her during my Public Affairs Master time (2000-2002), and was pleased to often bump into such an elegant and impressing woman in the hallways. Also, I got remarkable comments from those who attended her classes about her inteligence, her profound knowledge and expertise about American politics, her extraordinary teaching skills and her wit. I also remember her interesting and illuminating remarks in a luncheon the LBJ School hosted days after the September 11th attacks, when she gave her personal insights about the meaning of such a horrible event. In sum, even though I didn't have the chance to approach her very closely, I know enough to understand what a big loss her passing leaves behind. I send my condolences to the whole LBJ community. Regards for everyone from Colombia.

Andrés Mutis - Bogotá, Colombia


Quite simply, I would not be where I am today had it not been for Elspeth. She became so irate that my PhD program had rejected my application that she literally harassed them for months until they reconsidered. The champagne bottle she opened upon my acceptance not sits on my office bookcase. It was an honor to have known her -- and to be counted as her friend.

David Crockett - San Antonio, TX


Elspeth once asked our class if we "would strive to have a life of consequence?" From that day forward, my desire to serve this country changed to a passion to serve. I believe that Dean Rostow will forever embody someone who truly "had a life of consequence." Thank you for the memories - the halls of the LBJ School will forever feel your presence.

Jennifer Crow - Austin, TX - LBJ Class of 2008


It is with great sorrow that I heard the news of the passing of Dean Elspeth Rostow. Dean Rostow was a powerful influence in my life. I will always remember--with both respect and admiration-- her elegance, her brilliance, her determination, her subtle sense of humor, her impeccable manners, and her grit.

There were two reasons I came to the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs as a student in 2001 despite receiving generous offers from Harvard and Princeton: the memory of Barbara Jordan, the and the persuasion of Elspeth Rostow. These icons reassured me that the LBJ School represented the best of the Great Society, the heights of academic standards, and the most compelling elements of Western populism.

Upon my acceptance of the 2001 Barbara Jordan Scholarship and my matriculation at the LBJ School, Professor Rostow took me to lunch at the Austin Club, overlooking the commanding heights of that Hill Country Capital. Despite her own formidable accomplishments and elite place in society, she had an amazing capability to make every person she met feel respected, valued, and "seen."

I had grown up as the daughter of a nuclear physicist in Los Alamos. The Cold War was a real presence in my life as a child. I grew up considering the perils and the power of conflict, nonproliferation and technological modernization at first hand. I remember Walt Rostow, Elspeth's husband, as a key political advisor to LBJ and JFK not from my own experience, (for I was far too young) but from stories around the dinner table from my father. Later in my academic career I would encounter academic articles written by Walt Rostow on modernization. What a gift of history to have met the man, Walter Rostow, in person, and to have been taught by his brilliant wife, Elspeth Rostow. I thank the LBJ School for that opportunity.

While at the LBJ School took a course from Professor Rostow on the topic of the American Presidency. We were privileged in her course to use the archival resources of the LBJ library. I worked on a project which allowed me to listen to the tapes of Lyndon. B. Johnson speaking about his commitment to civil rights with African-American leaders of the day. These tapes moved me to tears, as I realized that this complicated president whose name graced the school I attended, was also a person with strong passions, trying his best to walk through troubled times with an embattled nation. Indeed, that was Elspeth's legacy. She had the capability to engage students with history, and bring the passion and power of history along with her in her diminutive and elegant person.

When I considered whether to return after the LBJ School to the life of a practitioner, or to try my hand at academia, Dean Rostow took me to a very special lunch at the East Side Cafe. It was to mark the occasion of my acceptance to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University as a doctoral student. It was a rainy gray day in Austin. I remember Dean Rostow dressed in her impeccable Chanel suit with her perfectly coiffed hair. I marveled at her elegance, and remarked to myself that I would like to emulate that quiet perfection. As we sipped our coffee after lunch, she told me a personal story of the travails she had had at Columbia as a doctoral student. She opened her life experience to me to encourage me to complete the path she had started. What greater legacy, what greater inspiration for a woman academic than to have Dean Elspeth Rostow quietly encourage me to continue forward on this long, and often difficult academic journey.

Dean Elspeth Rostow and I continued our formal relationship through the years, exchanging hand penned letters across continents. I wrote her a letter lamenting the passage of her dear, and truly beloved husband Walt Rostow. She wrote me a letter congratulating me on my marriage and the birth of my daughter in Africa,

My time with dean Elspeth Rostow was brief. I only spent two years with her. But that time was unforgettable and a profound time of personal and intellectual change. She changed my life profoundly. She inspired me, she encouraged me, she pushed me. I mourn her loss as I mourn the loss of a friend, a mentor, and a role model, and a symbol.

Thank you Elspeth for taking time out of your busy, important, and influential life to notice me, and care about me. I will never forget your memory and I will honor it in all that I do.

Warigia Bowman - Cambridge , MA


ELSPETH ROSTOW: A TRIBUTE
December 9, 2007

For years, I've entertained a fantasy. I imagine Elspeth Rostow walking into a room filled with Austin‚s movers and shakers, sidling up to one of the good ol‚ boys, and saying "Howdy." As I said, it's a fantasy. Elspeth would never have drawled out a "Howdy." Come to think of it, she wouldn‚t have sidled, either. Her manner, like her speech, was direct and precise.

Elspeth wasn't from around here. Indeed, she often regaled audiences with stories about her first visit to the LBJ Ranch. The limestone outcroppings of the Hill Country were, to use our vernacular, "a fur piece" from the concrete canyons of Manhattan where she had grown up.

Yet at the end of the Johnson Administration, this is where Walt and Elspeth decided to come. They came, no doubt, because they loved and admired the President and the First Lady. I suspect that they also came because they felt they could make a difference here - that they could add more value, to use Walt‚s phrasing, than they could at Harvard or MIT. They added enormous value - Elspeth as dean of two UT schools, Walt as author of more books than some of us have read, both as founders of the Austin Project.

Even though she wasn't from around here, Elspeth made this place her own; and she went out of her way to make sure that other newcomers felt at home here. When I became dean of the LBJ School in 1997, Elspeth was the first member of the faculty to invite me to dinner. When I arrived at her and Walt's home, she announced that we were going to have dinner at the home of Bob and Nancy Inman. It was a lovely evening, but it also had a purpose: Elspeth knew how important it was for me to develop contacts, and she helped me do it.

What an extraordinary woman she was! The LBJ School, this University, the city of Austin are better places because of her. She was a great teacher, an inspiring leader, a builder of institutions, a friend to huge numbers of people, and a very wise woman.

I am grateful for all that Elspeth did for me - so grateful that I will forgive her for never saying "Howdy."

Edwin Dorn - LBJ School of Public Affairs


Just last week, I had the occasion to have a one-on-one conversation with a leading policy maker in Washington DC. As the topic turned to foreign policy and the current presidential campaign, I immediately brought up a quote Professor Rostow offered in her presidential foreign policy class. He was quite impressed with my having studied under Elspeth Rostow. I was impressed with my actually remembering a direct quote from her.

While preparing for a final paper, I went to Professor Rostow's office to seek her advice. Upon being invited into her office, I found her sitting behind her desk, a desk covered with the various newspapers of the day and a computer showing a continually growing list of incoming e-mails. She asked how she could help me. I promptly told her my dilemma and asked her if she had any ideas where I could find information on "Truman's decision to fire General McArthur." Expecting a list of books, authors, or suggestions, I took out a pad to write her thoughts down. With a wave of her hand she pushed aside that notion and rose from her chair and proceeded to the far wall (a wall filled from top to bottom with books and nothing but books). Like a blind person reading brail, she ran her finger across the shelves. Suddenly she stopped, pulled out one book, handed it to me and stated "I do believe you will find some useful information on pages 84 to 86." Sure enough, she was right.

I will forever remember Professor Elspeth Rostow. The time spent in her classroom. Her invitations to join her for dinner. Our conversations about New York. Her thoughts on the politics of the day. Her smile as I caught up to her after a lecture at the LBJ Library. She was the best part of attending the LBJ School... I will miss her greatly.

TJ Costello - Austin, TX - Class of 2003


I came to the LBJ School in September of 1975 when John Gronouski had stepped down from the Deanship and after a year been replaced by Bill Cannon who had come from high positions at OMB and the University of Chicago. Bill left after two years and after a protracted search was replaced in January of 1977 with Scotty Campbell from Syracuse who lasted 2 months when he accepted a job with the Carter administration. We had three acting deans before and after Campbell and the situation was all too well encapsulated by the skit of a faculty meeting in the Follies that spring entitled "Choose me for Dean Lorene" Lorene Rogers was then UT President.

She chose Elspeth who faced at least five major problems 1.The rest of the University was resentful of what they perceived as special treatment and lack of communication spawned in part by John Gronouski's contempt for academia; 2. Bill Clements, the first Republican governor since reconstruction, vetoed most of the earmarks that UT had and the LBJ School was one of them; 3. the Johnson Family felt I think somewhat disconnected from where the school was and where it was going; 4. A faculty that was in part loyal to John and strong personalities like Emmette Redford; and 5. a curriculum that led to annual student revolts every October and an evaluation process that led more to mental breakdown than improved performance. Elspeth dealt with all of these brilliantly. She had already been a dean across campus, she communicated well with the family and she co-opted the faculty to build on and rationalize the curriculum and recruited Wilbur Cohen, Barbara Jordan and others and arranged for Gunnar and Alva Myrdahl to come. She created a context in which everyone could participate and she was blessed with "the vision thing." We all have been empowered and I might add taught by example these last 30 years.

David Warner - LBJ School of Public Affairs


Professor Elspeth Rostow: incomparable, brilliant, witty, gentle. Thank goodness she never learned to type!

Peggy O'Shea - Albany, NY


I remember a teacher who demanded nothing but the best from all of her students, and knew exactly how to extract it from each individual. I remember wryly amused comments in class on a Jesse Helms impression, topped off with an elusive "well done," that highest of compliments. And I remember the first time she introduced herself to my class, at orientation, and thinking, "That's the kind of woman I want to become." She left everyone she met richer, no matter how fleeting the experience.

Maggie Sheer - Silver Spring, MD


It has been a challenge to decide what story to share about Professor Rostow, as I truly treasured all my chats with her and I wanted to come up with something truly worthy of her wit and insight into policy, politics and people.

But one story sticks out in my mind and I think it says a lot about Professor Rostow and why she is so beloved among the LBJ family. And that story is from when I was working to organize what would become the first ever Barbara Jordan Memorial Forum. Although many may not know it, Professor Rostow was a key adviser throughout that process. Indeed, she was the first faculty member consulted after we decided that we wanted to name the event in Jordan\'s honor, and she was crucial in helping us to get approval from the family to use Jordan's name for the Forum.

One day, towards the final stretch of planning before the event, she stopped me in the hallway and asked me if the chosen theme of "Celebrating 25 years of diversity" meant the event was geared solely towards students, alumni and professionals of color. I clarified that that wasn\'t the intent at all and that we really wanted any and all students and alumni interested in the topics of the various panel discussions to feel welcome and participate. To which she responded in classic Rostow fashion: "Good. I was at an alumni dinner last night and that's what I told them." And then she smiled, nodded and continued on to her office.

I'll never forget that nod of approval and I'll never forget the many lessons she taught me, the stories she shared. I was lucky not only to take her American foreign policy course at the LBJ School, but to have Professor Rostow as my PR [PR?] supervisor. And the chats we would have on current affairs after she would give back her latest feedback on my research plan or a draft chapter are some of my fondest memories of my time at LBJ.

I know everyone in the LBJ family is saddened by this loss and my deepest condolences go out to Professor Rostow's family. But I hope the Rostow family is heartened by the knowledge that her spirit and insights will live on through the work of the students and other lives she touched for many, many years to come.

Burt Edwards - Washington, DC


Elspeth Rostow was the most inspiring professor of my graduate school experience. Having her serve as my dissertation supervisor is one of the greatest honors I've ever experienced. She and Walt W. were kind to my family, and we'll never forget how fine they were. She still serves as a model for excellence and integrity in professional and personal life.

Charles Kupfer - Camp Hill, TX


What can I say about Professor Rostow? She had a way with words--she was precise, economical and eloquent (and sometimes devastating) in a fascinatingly anachronistic way. By that I mean her way of speaking harkens back to an era where diction and wit and were obviously highly prized (and hard-learned) skills. I've never encountered any educator before or since who spoke, or taught, like her. I also hear she was wicked limerick writer, although the honor of reading or hearing what she wrote is something she unfortunately never bestowed on our class. I'd love to see some of her work, if anybody has access to it!

Amanda Levinson - Menlo Park, CA