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Frederick H. Burkhardt

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BENNINGTON -- Dr. Frederick H. Burkhardt, scholar and humanist active in many fields and a former President of Bennington College, died on Sunday morning, Sept. 23, 2007, at his home on Monument Avenue. With the editorial assistance of his wife, Anne Schlabach Burkhardt, and others, he was actively involved until recent days in his major project in retirement of editing the correspondence of Charles Darwin.

Frederick Henry Burkhardt was born Sept. 13, 1912, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the only child of Marie Neumeier and Louis Burkhardt, a german immigrant. Winning a scholarship to Columbia University, he majored in philosophy and earned his doctorate there. After a postgraduate fellowship to Oxford University where he met his first wife, Margret Ross, from Scotland, he began teaching in the philosophy department of the University of Wisconsin. His years at Madison were interrupted by World War II, when he served in the Navy and subsequently the Office of Strategic Services in North Africa, Italy, and Washington, D.C. During his service he made lasting friendships and connections ranging beyond the academic world.

Barely back in Madison, he was in 1947 at the age of 35 invited to become the third president of Bennington College, probably on the suggestion of Professor John Gauss of Harvard. Visiting the College he was impressed by both the exceptionally engaged students and by a lively faculty that included among others Ben Belitt, Francis Fergusson, and Catherine Osgood Foster in literature, Robert Woodworth in science, Thomas Brockway and Peter Drucker in social science, Paul Feeley in art, Martha Hill in dance, and Paul Boepple in music. He soon attracted other faculty himself; some well established figures including Max Salvadori and the economist George Soule; and others very young and unknown, such as historian Franklin Ford -- later dean of the faculty at Harvard; poet Howard Nemerov, who was to become Poet Laureate; and Max Kampelman, fresh from helping Hubert Humphrey get elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.

He also added a few staff positions. To a new office of alumnae secretary he named Rebecca Stickney, who launched an alumna quarterly. He appointed as his executive assistant Charlotte Bowman, known to him from her service in the O.S.S., who was to work with him until he retired. He credited her capability in handling much of the day-to-day administrative duties of his office with enabling him to undertake much that he could not otherwise have done.

In educational policy Burkhardt was concerned to establish a link between the sciences on the one hand, and literature and the arts. When this proved difficult, he himself, supported by the scientists and interested students, launched a course in “Methods of Science.” In the visual srts he pressed for a position in art history, to which Alexander Dorner was appointed. He also emphasized the importance of students’ exploration of different areas of study in their first two years under the guidance of their faculty counselors before committing them selves to a major.

His 10-year presidency was later marked by an interdisciplinary Conference on “America in Crisis,” the culmination of a two-year program under the leadership of Daniel Aaron, with addresses by a succession of distinguished scholars that were subsequently published in a book under that title. This found its counterpart in the curriculum with the introduction of an academic program in American Studies.

Meanwhile in 1950-51 Burkhardt was called away to serve as director of Public Affairs under Dr. Shepard Stone in the U.S. High Commission for Germany with the charge to foster the development of a free press and other democratic programs in the fledgling German Federal Republic.

Frederick Burkhardt had no thought of leaving Bennington when in 1957 he was persuaded to become President of the American Council of Learned Societies at a critical juncture in its history. Over the next seventeen years, with the able assistance of Charlotte Bowman once again, he led the development of the the organization in its ever-larger service to the American, scholarly community in its pursuits at home and abroad including academic exchanges, especially with the Soviet Union. Among other accomplishments he played a leading role in securing the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

During these years he also served as a member (and for a period chairman) of the New York City Board of Higher Education overseeing all the City Universities. It was during his tenure as chairman with Dr. Al Bowker as chancellor that the controversial policy of opening admissions was launced and several new colleges were established. He was a Trustee, and again for a time Chairman of the Board, of the New York Public Library.

His support of international programs in the sciences and humanities led to many foreign travels and engagements, including meetings with important figures such as Chinese Premier Chou EnLai.

On retirement from the ACLS in 1974 he returned to Bennington to live. After having edited the complete works of the philosopher Williama James in 19 volumes, he took on the major challenge of editing the complete correspondence of Charles Darwin, the enterprise that engaged him for the rest of his life, with 15 volumes published thus far and 17 more anticipated.

An elected member of the American Philosophical Society and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was also the recipient of many other honors.

Frederick Burkhardt is survived by his wife, Anne Schlabach Burkardt, who taught philosophy at Bennington College for many years, whom he married in 1972. He is also survived by two daughters and a son from his first marriage to Margret Ross: Jane, Susan and Ross; his daughter-in-law Janie Burkhardt, his granddaughter Dr. Gillian Burkhardt and grandson Jonathan Burkhardt.

Should friends desire, the family suggests that contributions in Frederick Burkhardt’s memory be made to the Bennington Free Library, the McCullough Library in North Bennington, or the Darwin Correspondence project.
Published in Bennington Banner on Sept. 27, 2007
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