UMass History Department Remembers the Late Stephen B. Oates, Emeritus Professor of History
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Stephen B. Oates, Civil War historian, biographer, and emeritus professor of history at UMass Amherst, died peacefully surrounded by loving family on August 20, 2021 at his home in Amherst after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 85.
Oates had a deep and lasting impact on students and colleagues in the UMass Amherst Department of History, and beyond, through his broad-reaching scholarship. Members of the department remembered him fondly.
“The Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has lost one of the leading teachers and writers in its history,” shared Brian W. Ogilvie, chair of the department. “We are proud to honor and continue his commitments to undergraduate teaching, and to bringing first-rate historical scholarship to a broad public outside the academy.”
“Stephen saw himself fully as much as an artist of biography as a historian,” said Joyce Berkman, a former colleague, Emerita Professor of History UMass Amherst, and pioneering feminist scholar. “He was an extraordinarily inspiring teacher, who respected all students irrespective of identities. His biography of Clara Barton has a profoundly feminist sensibility, a sense of women as major figures in American history. It interweaves gender and history with remarkable perception, a phenomenal biography.”
“Stephen Oates was a dear friend, a valued colleague, an accomplished teacher, and a fine, original craftsman who fully researched, skillfully organized, and clearly wrote each and every book,” said Ronald Story, Emeritus Professor of History UMass Amherst. “His work expressed Steve's passionate faith that history matters and that writing and teaching history to as many people as possible matters because in the end it can help inform and inspire us to become a better people. Bless him for possessing such faith and acting on it.”
Oates authored biographies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Clara Barton, John Brown and William Faulkner with captivating storytelling and historical accuracy, which were among his 16 books and numerous scholarly and popular essays.
“His students honored him with the University's Distinguished Teaching Award, our highest honor for teaching. His award-winning biographical and historical publications centered on the Civil War but extended beyond it to Nat Turner, William Faulkner, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” added Ogilve.
Filmmaker Ken Burns tapped Oates for the epic PBS documentary The Civil War.
“Stephen was an extremely valuable advisor to our Civil War series and an informed and passionate participant,” Burns recalled. “He knew the bottom-up story as well as the top-down one, but more importantly, he knew and appreciated the huge stakes for the United States and indeed the world in a Union victory.”
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights acknowledged Oates by granting its 1983 book award to him for Let The Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Stephen Oates was an early recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book Award. He set the bar high with Let the Trumpet Sound — his account of Dr. King's lifelong commitment to social justice and civil rights,” Kerry Kennedy, president of RFK Human Rights, noted. “Stephen had a talent for bringing history to life. The characters and events he chronicled come off the pages to live in our imaginations and fuel our understanding of our history.”
The Civil War Round Table of Chicago granted Oates the Nevins-Freeman Award for lifetime achievement with Civil War scholarship and biographies.
“Biography appealed to me as the form in which I wanted to write about the past,” Oates observed in Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art, “because the best biography – pure biography – was a storytelling art that brought people alive again.”
Oates served as a professor of history and the Paul Murray Kendall Professor of Biography at UMass Amherst from 1968 to 1997. He was a semifinalist and silver medal winner in the national Professor of the Year competition, sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. UMass Amherst awarded him its Distinguished Teaching Award in 1981, the Chancellor’s Medal for Outstanding Scholarship in 1976, the Chancellor’s Certificate of Recognition in 1983, and the UMass Presidential Writers Award in 1985. Undergraduates — as many as 500 filling lecture halls — repeatedly sought out his classes.
“Stephen Oates had a profound and lasting impact on people's understanding of history and how it informs our ability to grapple with the most fundamental questions of human existence,” acknowledges Lynn C. Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “He was a cherished Five College colleague when I served as president of Mount Holyoke College. Inside and outside of the classroom, as a teacher, scholar and public intellectual, Stephen changed lives through the transformative power of education. I am deeply saddened by his passing.”
Oates authored lives of Brown, Turner, Lincoln, and King, which he termed “a Civil War quartet.”
He said, “They humanize the moral paradox of slavery and racial oppression in a land based on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. All four were driven, visionary men, all were caught up in the issues of slavery and race, and all devised their own solutions to those inflammable problems. And all perished, too, in the conflicts and hostilities that surrounded the quest for equality in their country.”
Among other attainments, Oates originated a first-person, participatory narrative of the coming and prosecution of the Civil War, a literary and historical first with publication of The Approaching Fury: Voices Of The Storm, 1820–1861 and The Whirlwind Of War: Voices Of The Storm, 1861–1865. He wrote the chapter on Abraham Lincoln for C. Vann Woodward’s Presidential Misconduct from Washington to Today to provide historical context for the Watergate investigations.
As editor, with Paul Mariani, of Commonwealth Classics in Biography for the University of Massachusetts Press, he advanced biography. American Heritage, The Nation and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications, commissioned and published his essays. His two-volume survey of American History educated a generation of college students.
Oates’s contributions to American biography and history afford recurrent enrichment. His son, screenwriter Greg Oates, is carrying the torch through initiatives of his own based on his father’s books on the coming of the Civil War, Nat Turner and Clara Barton.
“Fresh media technologies, formats, and platforms enable new generations to access my father’s living legacies,” Greg Oates states.
Stephen Oates was born to Steve Theodore and Florence (Baer) Oates on Jan. 5, 1936 in Pampa, Texas. He is survived by his son, Greg, and his wife, Kenda Kroodsma; daughter, Stephanie, who cared for him during his illness; and four grandchildren, Stefan, Alex, Henrik, and Ben. He was pre-deceased by Helen (Perry) Oates, 1939-2019, a former wife. Oates attended the University of Texas at Austin, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1958, a master’s degree in 1960 and a Ph.D. in 1969.
A version of this article was originally published by the UMass Amherst News and Media Relations Office.