Hugh Hawkins won an award from the American Historical Association nearly 60 years ago for his first book, and though he would write and edit other volumes during his decades teaching at Amherst College, he waited until after retiring before turning his pen to his own life.
By then many memories he revisited were in the distant past. In the preface to his 2006 book “Railwayman’s Son: A Plains Family Memoir,” he mused about the “skewing of memory” and how events that might seem insignificant were among his sharpest recollections.
“I could tell you a lot about my first day in graduate school, about landing at le Havre on my first trip to Europe, about my unexpected induction into the Army. But the surprising memories come from early childhood,” Dr. Hawkins wrote. Of certain youthful experiences, he added: “Why had I not thought of that in 60 years? Why should that have been retained at all?”
He also posed a question every would-be memoir writer confronts: “Could I record such memories, I asked myself, in a way that anyone else would want to read?”
Dr. Hawkins, the Anson D. Morse professor of history and American studies emeritus at Amherst College, where he taught for 43 years, died May 6 of complications from pneumonia. He was 86 and lived in Plainfield.
In the 1970s, Dr. Hawkins “was the principal architect of the first-year introduction to liberal studies curriculum and helped build both the history and American studies departments,” according to biographical material on the Amherst College website. In his honor, the history department established the annual Hawkins Lecture.
A child of the Great Plains, Dr. Hawkins grew up in Kansas and Oklahoma, where his family moved from one community to the next because of his father’s work as a train dispatcher.
Prior to writing about himself, Dr. Hawkins focused on intellectual histories such as “Between Harvard and America: The Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot” and his first book, “Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1873-1889.”
Turning to his own life, he wrote detailed descriptions of events such as a 1936 parade for Alf Landon, the Kansas governor whose presidential bid ended in a landslide defeat when Franklin Roosevelt was reelected. For Dr. Hawkins, the parade was just as memorable because as a 6-year-old he was frustrated while trying to peer around a taller child blocking his view of the passing dignitaries.
In a review of “Railwayman’s Son” published in the journal Great Plains Quarterly, Carlos A. Schwantes, a professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis, called the memoir “a valuable contribution to the literature of memory, Midwestern regionalism, and small-town America.”
Dr. Hawkins also revisited his life in “They Spoke, I Listened: A Life in Quotes,” which he constructed through the recollected remarks of everyone from relatives and colleagues to strangers. That book was published in 2014, as was “The Escape of the Faculty Wife and Other Stories,” a fictionalized retelling of events from his life.
In these books and in another memoir that has not been published, he was gentle. “He was so nicely brought up that he never said anything bad about anybody,” said his niece Annie Morse of Chicago. Dr. Hawkins, she added, “really felt it was best to draw a veil over any unpleasantness.”
As a gay professor who began teaching in an era when his sexual orientation could end his career, Dr. Hawkins was no stranger to vexing events. In an oral history interview recorded for Amherst College in 2003, he spoke of the difference between tranquil recollections that lie at the surface of memory and the more disturbing details he found when he researched himself.
“As I generally think back on it, ‘Oh, well, Amherst was fine from the beginning, I never had any problems. What a tolerant institution,’ ” he said. “And then I’ll come across a letter I wrote at the time or maybe a diary entry or something and I can see it was full of anguish and tension and worry. It was rough. I was delighted to be here, I thought I could do what was wanted, but there was this side of my life which would have meant sudden death at Amherst College.”
In the late 1950s, a year after arriving at the college, Dr. Hawkins began a long-term relationship with Walter Richard, with whom he shared a home in Plainfield until Richard died in 2012.
“I was determined this part of my life was important,” Dr. Hawkins said in the interview. “I was not going to fake a heterosexual marriage or not find fulfillment in love. So I would have been willing for it to be sudden death at Amherst College if that’s what had happened.”
Born in Topeka, Kansas, Hugh Dodge Hawkins was the youngest of five siblings born to James A. Hawkins and the former Rowena Eddy. He graduated from high school in El Reno, a city some 30 miles west of Oklahoma City, and spent a semester at Washburn University in Topeka before switching to DePauw University in Indiana. After graduating, he went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, from which he received a doctorate in 1954.
Drafted into the Army, he spent two years in clerical jobs, mostly in Germany, before taking an instructor position at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. A year later, he was hired by Amherst College, where he stayed until retiring as a professor emeritus in 2000.
At Amherst, he held a joint appointment as a history and American studies professor. A civil rights activist, Dr. Hawkins flew to Selma, Ala., in the summer of 1965 to participate in protests, and he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak during a training session in Atlanta. Upon returning to Amherst, Dr. Hawkins worked to expand diversity and to make a place for African-American studies in the curriculum.
Dr. Hawkins, who requested that no service be held, had no immediate survivors, but over the years he and Richard were at the center of gatherings for their extended families.
“One of the things that was so remarkable about their lives together is that both of their families were incredibly mellow about their relationship,” said Morse, Dr. Hawkins’s niece.
In any encounter, including family reunions, Dr. Hawkins “managed to balance an innate gentleness and thoughtfulness,” she said. “He was understood to be a wonderful conversationalist, and I think that’s largely because he was very willing to listen and draw people out.”
Dr. Hawkins and his partner were the relatives to whom many in their families turned “when we had questions and needed to make important life decisions,” said Richard’s niece Anne Fitch of Fitchburg.
“It was always, ‘What do you think Walter and Hugh would say? Let’s talk with them,’ ” Fitch recalled. “They were the nucleus of the family when we had family gatherings. They were just wonderful, guiding, intelligent, humane, generous, and caring people.”
Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.