George Athan Billias, 99
Worcester - George Athan Billias, 99, Professor emeritus of American History at Clark University died on Thursday, August 16th at home. Born in Lynn, he was the son of Greek immigrants, Athan Billias and Grammatiki Papadakis. A prolific scholar, Billias was best known for his magnum opus, American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World,
1776-1989; A Global Perspective. At the time of his death, he was working on a second volume, American Constitutional Influence of Britain and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. His pioneering work traced the extraordinary spread of American constitutionalism throughout the globe from the rise of the American Revolution to the constitutional revolution in Britain in 2010. The first volume was well received by leading scholars. Gordon Wood (Brown) called it a "monumental study," while Robert Middlekauf (Berkeley) described it as "Monumental" and added, "a marvelous book." David Armitage (Harvard) wrote that "a work of this scale is unlikely ever again to be undertaken by an individual author, let alone one with such authority and experience." [The book] "is a heroic endeavor whose results will be debated and plundered by generations of scholars to come, and whose wider audience may help encourage a broader consciousness of America's more benign contributions to the contemporary world." In 2010 the New England Historical Association named it the book-of-the-year with the Hanlan Prize.
Besides these two books, Billias authored, edited and co-edited fourteen other volumes in biography, military, history, historiography, and American constitutional history. His biography of General John Glover, whose Marblehead mariners ferried Washington across the Delaware in 1776, was selected as one of "240 outstanding books on 1960" by the New York Times. He also completed a biography of Elbridge Gerry, Singer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Massachusetts, Vice President of the United States and politician of "gerrymandering" fame. Billia's interest in the Revolutionary War led to his editing several volumes of collected essays on American and British generals and admirals later combined as George Washington's Generals and Opponents. He co-edited with a colleague, Gerald N. Grob, a two-volume work on American historiography, Interpretations of American History, that became that leading readings books of its kind for almost four decades. His memoir entitled Scholar, Soldier, and Sire covers the major segments of his professional and personal life.
Upon his retirement from Clark in 1989, a symposium attended by more than 100 scholars in early American history was held in his honor at the American Antiquarian Society. Papers presented were published in a volume entitled The Republican Synthesis Revisited: Essays in Honor of George Athan Billias. He was a member of the Council of the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, the National Bicentennial Commission, and elected the membership of the American Antiquarian Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Recipient of numerous academic awards and honors, he was granted fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for Humanities and Huntington Library. Proud of his Greek-American heritage, Billias served for many years as a board member of the Hellenic Arts Society in Worcester.
After graduation from Lynn English High in 1937, Billias entered the Army in September 1941. Following basic training, he served as an enlisted man in the Headquarters Command of General George S. Patton. Commissioned a Medical Administrative Officer in 1942, he was assigned to the 9th Armored Division and placed in command of a platoon of ten ambulances. Serving in the European theater, he was involved in two of the greatest land battles of the war – the Battle of the Bulge and the capture of the Remagen Bridge. In the Bulge, he was in Bastogne before it was surrounded by German forces. Four ambulance drivers under his command were captured but miraculously recovered four months later deep inside Germany. For its role in helping to hold off the surprise German attack during the Bulge, the combat command in which Billias served was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation of "Extraordinary heroism and gallantry in action."
At the Remagen Bridge, Billias was involved in evacuating casualties from the bridge whose span was the only remaining one across the Rhine. The bridge had not been crossed by enemy forces since the day of Napoleon. German artillery fire was extremely heavy, and the ambulance in which Billias was riding was struck by shrapnel. The driver was wounded, and shell fragments narrowly missed Billias, but he escaped without serious injury. Despite the intense artillery barrages, Billias kept moving wounded men to safety. For his heroism, he was awarded the Bronze Star whose citation read: "His praiseworthy work in the establishment of a collecting point on the east bank of the Rhine and a ferrying system across the Rhine contributed materially to the rapid treatment and the alleviation of the suffering of the wounded."
The 9th Armored, one of the spearheading divisions into Germany, liberated a number of camps containing Allied prisoners, displaced persons, and victims of the Holocaust. His grim wartime experience, Billias once said, was the defining moment of his life. After witnessing man's inhumanity to man, he was determined to dedicate himself to helping humankind in some way.
After leaving the Army, Billias attended Bates College, graduated in 1948 and married his classmate, Joyce Anne Baldwin, that same year. He attended Columbia University, where he received his M.A. in 1949 and his Ph.D. later in 1958. Unable to find a college teaching position, he moved with his family first to Colorado Springs, where he held a position as a civilian military historian with the Air Defense Command and later to Newburgh, New York, with the Eastern Air Defense Force.
His wartime past was linked to his decision to become a college professor so that he could work with young people. His first teaching position was at the University of Maine in Orono, where he taught from 1954-1961. In 1962 he accepted the position of Director of the American History graduate program at Clark University, where he taught for 27 years and held the chair as the Jacob and Frances Hiatt Professor.
An exuberant lecturer, he had a passion for history and conveyed his enthusiasm in the classroom. One former student established the George Billias Prize in his honor, given annually for the best undergraduate paper. Close to his students, Billias liked to think of himself as the "other elbow" in the "elbow teaching" for which Clark is noted.
After 28 years of happy married life, his first wife, Joyce, contracted breast cancer and died tragically in 1976 at age 50. After remaining a widower for a decade, Billias in 1986 he met and married Margaret Rose Neussendorfer, a fellow professor, Yale Ph.D., and scholar in American Studies. Without her love, inspiration, and dedication, Billias acknowledged, his work on American constitutionalism could not have been completed.
Billias is survived by his loving wife, Margaret, and three creative and caring children: Stephen Billias and his wife, Bela Breslau of Deerfield; Athan Billias and his wife, Keiko Ikeda of Aliso Viejo, CA and Nancy Billias of Manchester, CT. Billias also leaves three grandchildren: Scott Athan Billias and Alisha Nancy Billias of Victoria, Canada and Sophia Rachel Billias of Cleveland, OH. Instead of flowers, contributions may be made to the George and Margaret Billias Scholarship Fund, established for talented but needy students in American history and American Studies at Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01610. There are no calling hours. A celebration of Billias' life will be held at Clark University in the fall. O'CONNOR BROTHERS FUNERAL HOME, 592 Park Avenue is directing arrangements.oconnorbrothers.com