STRADDLING WORLDS -- The Jewish-American Journey of Professor Richard W. Leopold
"As he spoke, it was easy to forget that he would soon celebrate his ninety-third birthday. Today, he wanted to discuss his death."– Prologue
For thirty years after my last class with one of Northwestern University's most illustrious professors, Richard W. Leopold, I had maintained contact with him, just as hundreds of other students had. Many of those counting him as a central influence from their early years had risen to national prominence: Senator George McGovern, congressmen Richard Gephardt and Jim Kolbe, journalist Georgie Anne Geyer, Assistant Secretary of State Phyllis Elliott Oakley, writer/director/producer Garry Marshall, Crate & Barrel founder Gordon Segal, and General Dynamics Chairman Nicholas Chabraja, among numerous others.
He had never married. By 2004, he was confined to a wheelchair and pesky tremors afflicted both hands. But his mind remained sharp as we talked during one of my monthly visits to his nursing home room. Surprisingly, he ventured for the first time into a deeply personal matter: the approaching end of his days.
"I am concerned," he said, "that no one knows the essential facts of my life well enough to write an accurate obituary when it is over."
I accepted his implicit challenge. Over the subsequent two years, we met every Sunday morning, eventually retracing his entire twentieth century journey. Along the way, we added my father-in-law, whose life had paralleled my former professor's. Born in the same year, 1912, and into Jewish lineages, both men grew up in secular homes. But the absence of any Jewish self-identification did not shield them from childhood anti-Semitism. They overcame discrimination to attend and succeed at Ivy League schools: after Princeton, Leopold received one of Harvard's first Ph.Ds in American history awarded to a Jew; after Yale, my father-in-law became one of only eight Jews in his medical school class of eighty-three at Western Reserve University. As members of the "Greatest Generation," they served with distinction as officers during World War II. When it ended, they resumed their climb to the top of their respective professions.
They persevered through a twentieth century Jewish-American experience that they and many others shared, but rarely discussed. As their lives ended, these two men told all of us their stories.
CLICK HERE for more about "Straddling Worlds: The Jewish-American Journey of Professor Richard W. Leopold" (Northwestern University Press, January 2008)
FROM BOOK NEWS: "Richard W. Leopold was an historian of American foreign policy at Northwestern University. While his books and articles are still relevant, his greatest legacy was an influence on three generations of students, some of whom, like George McGovern and Richard Gephardt, went on to help form foreign policy. One of those students, Steven Harper, has drawn on Leopold's private papers, published works, interviews of Leopold and his own memories to produce a loving biography of his former professor. More than a tribute, the book is also the story of the last century in America and the experience of a non-practicing Jew caught between total assimilation and anti-Semitism."
- Annotation copyright@Book News Inc., Portland, OR, www.booknews.com
FROM JOHN PALMER: "Captures the spirit, soul and talent of the most inspiring teacher I have ever known...A well-written book about an extraordinary human being."
- Former international and White House correspondent for NBC News
FROM GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: "We Americans live too much in unhistorical bubbles, protected from the cleansing knowledge of time and man's history. And so, how greatly we need this well-written book about one of our greatest twentieth century teachers! Here, in the amazing and inspiring life of Richard Leopold, a man impassioned by excellence, we can see and feel one of the great and searching historic minds of our time -- and grapple with our past anew. Personally, I am immensely comforted and inspired by this rare narrative of a man who never bent the truth."
- Syndicated columnist, Universal Press Syndicate, and author of Guerilla Prince and other books
FROM JOHN MORTON BLUM: "There are few great teachers in any generation. One such during the second half of the twentieth century was Richard W. Leopold, a professor of the history of American foreign policy at Harvard and Northwestern. Steven J. Harper has caught the spirit and tone of Dick Leopold's life and career in this graceful, admiring biography which aptly describes the stunning qualities of instruction, academic citizenship, and professional scholarship that Leopold exemplified in his distinguished career."
- Sterling Professor of History (emeritus) at Yale University and author of The Republican Roosevelt, V was for Victory and other books