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Fresh Start


No time like the New Year for fresh starts. Here is one for my professor, James MacGregor Burns ’39.

After more than 20 books, a Pulitzer Prize and many other honours for his work on the executive and legislative branches of government, 89-year-old historian James MacGregor Burns is ready for a new subject.

“I’m working on the politics of the Supreme Court,” he says, seated in a small armchair in his converted farmhouse, a sunny, cluttered, book-filled loft just down the road and up the hill from Williams College, where he studied as an undergraduate and later taught for decades.

“I felt I had treated presidents and Congresses a lot, and here was this other branch I didn’t know that much about. I had a feeling it would be even more political than I expected, and it is.”

He is white-haired and wide-eyed, an ever curious scholar dressed smartly in khakis and a striped shirt for this afternoon interview. Although clearly slowed by age, he remains active enough that when his car broke down in town earlier in the day, he walked back home, uphill, for more than a mile.

The climb up Bee Hill is not an easy one, at age 89 or earlier.

Read the whole article. I last chatted with Professor Burns two year ago, at a conference in his honor at Harvard. He was slowed by age, as are we all, but still the same charming, empathetic teacher that he was 20 years ago. I was lucky enough to be a member of the last class he taught at Williams. He held office hours in Stetson and I would climb those winding stairs to his aerie at the building’s back for hours of conversation. Which professor took over his office? Did he care for his students as much as Professor Burns cared for us?

The same day that I saw Burns, I drove to Williamstown and had a fun conversation with a member of the class of 2009, a young man with all of Burn’s energy and committment but seven decades younger. Talking with two such talented Ephs, seperated by nothing except time, brings home the connection that binds all Williams graduates together.

Happy New Year to all the Ephs!

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#1 Comment By Dick Swart On January 1, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

An excellent piece, Dave.

My very first class, my very day at Williams in 1952 was Poly Sci 1-2
with Professor Burns. The class room was the wonderful full-windowed class room at the front of Griffin. At the end of the hour, I realized how lucky I was to be at Williams! This thought continues 56 years later.

Happy New Year!

Dick Swart

#2 Comment By Dick Swart On January 1, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

A caret to the above: Please insert ‘first’ before ‘day’ in the very first sentence.

New Years Eve at the Double Mountain Brew Pub in Hood River must have been more disastrous than I very first thought!

#3 Comment By FROSH mom On January 1, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

To Admin:
A bit of feedback. I just wrote a comment, but when I went back to the interview to check something, I couldn’t retrieve my comment with the forward arrow. Does that make any sense?

Anyway, my comment was that I would love to have a conversation with this man. What an accomplished historian!
Inspired by a recent thread, I have been doing a bit of research on my father’s WWII experience.I found a book that is a compilation of stories about the paratrooper unit he was in….with, not only a story about my father, but a photo of him as well. It was even more dear, because the story was not about valor, but about the fear and circumstances of a very young soldier’s night watch.

#4 Comment By (d)HTK On January 2, 2008 @ 8:38 am

Why the picture of what appears to be the Big Dig Tunnel as the “new” Ephblog header? Please bring back the view of our Puirple Valley with the biker-at-rest.
Very nice piece on Burns, who I think also taught me in the ’50’s but didn’t hang with me at his Stetson office. We both had better things to do, or so it seemed at the time.

#5 Comment By Ronit On January 2, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

Please, please, please bring back the old Ephblog header image. This WordPress theme almost certainly allows a custom header image.

#6 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On January 2, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

I also took a course from Professor Burns, simply titled “Leadership.” One of my great courses.

Perhaps an anecdote will explain his ability to get to the core of an issue. At the first class, he asked each of us (18 in the class) to define “power.” I was a history major, but there were several Poli Sci types who did the “I’m going to show how much I know” thing and blathered on for five minutes about “leveraging power bases” and other esoteric stuff. After hearing us all out, he simply said, “A man loves a woman, but she doesn’t love him. That’s power.”

I’ve always liked his definition.