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When the President Retired, the Scholar Went Back to Work

UC President Emeritus Henry R. Winkler marked his first decade of "retirement" by publishing a new book. He has marked his second decade by publishing another.

Date: 2/4/2005
By: Greg Hand
Phone: (513) 556-1822
Photos By: Lisa Ventre
President Emeritus Henry R. Winkler’s office is appropriately located near the history section of the University of Cincinnati’s central library. The office is quiet, filled with books, and open to a pastoral view of Burnet Woods Park. The office maintains a presence for Winkler on a campus he first entered as a student in the 1930s.
Henry R. Winkler
Henry R. Winkler

On his way to the office recently, Winkler plucked a book from the shelves, a new book by a young scholar concerning the British Labour Party – the focus of Winkler’s scholarly study for more than half a century.

“This is a remarkable new book by quite a brilliant young man,” Winkler said. “I don’t believe I agree with most of what he has to say, but his talent is obvious and I like to keep up with what is going on in the field.”

For a good part of Winkler’s career, keeping up with the literature competed with the demands of administrative assignments.

“I think of myself first and essentially as a teacher,” Winkler said, noting with some pride that he continued to teach throughout nearly two decades when his primary appointment was administrative.

An anecdote from his early years in the classroom outlines his style and philosophy. A student approached Winkler after class one day, and told him he did not like the class. Winkler asked why.

“Well, prof, you tell us that Historian A says this, and Historian B says this, and you think there is another side to the story. I don’t want any of that. I just want the scoop.”

“The ‘scoop,’” Winkler said. ”Is the enemy of thinking.”

In this light, he considers Great Problems in European Civilization, co-authored with Kenneth M. Setton and others as his most important book.  The book present students with primary documents, and guides them to consider the big questions of history as topics for consideration rather than as accepted facts. “I think it had a substantial influence in how history has been taught,” Winkler said.

When, in 1964, the American Historical Association offered Winkler either of two positions  – full-time director of the association or part-time editor of its journal – he chose the part-time editorship. “I told them I would never be a full-time administrator,” he said, and chuckled at the subsequent turn of his career.

Within a few years, Winkler became a dean, then vice president and finally acting president at Rutgers University. He was called to the University of Cincinnati as executive vice president in 1977 and by the end of the year had assumed the presidency. Winkler, who earned his bachelor’s (1938) and master’s (1940) degrees from UC is the first and only alumnus to serve as president of the university. He retired as president in 1984.

“When I retired, I spent about five years reading myself back into the field,” Winkler said. Retirement provided the time to revisit archival collections in England. A book, focusing on the Labour Party during the 1920s, marked his 10th year as president emeritus. A new book, British Labour Seeks a Foreign Policy, 1900-1940, marks his 20th.

“In many ways, the new book is a synthesis of what I have been working on for some time,” he said.

Winkler enlisted his family in refining the book. “My wife Beatrice – Bea to everybody – worked along with me every step of the way,” he notes in the book’s acknowledgements. “It is her book as much as mine.” In cutting the first draft to its essential thesis, he was assisted by his son, Allan, distinguished professor of American history at Miami University, and daughter, Karen, a senior editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“They’re good editors,” Winkler said, “and they asked a lot of good questions.”

The research for the new book took him to England to verify footnotes and sources, a rewarding journey filled not only with work, but with memories. Shortly after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and Europe still digging out from World War II, Hugh Dalton, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave Winkler access to key Labour Party archives. Those archives were piled in disarray throughout a London sub-basement located near major bombing targets. To use the archives at that time, Winkler assisted Labour archivist Irene Wagner, a Jewish refugee from the Continent, as she began to organize and preserve the party’s historical records.

Recent visits, Winkler noted, have been essential to the scholarship but exhausting.

“The physical machinery isn’t what it used to be,” He said. “I’m in my 89th year, and I had six-way bypass surgery nine years ago. Still, I persevere, and it is rewarding to gain attention for what I have to say.”

In the autumn of 2004, Thomas More College invited Winkler to inaugurate an annual lecture series. He spoke on "The Anglo-American Partnership: Myth or Reality?"  He provided a review, touching on current events and informed by his research on the history behind today’s headlines.

“Ultimately,” Winkler said. “History is what the historian says it is. We are called to continually reconsider what we think of past events in the light of today’s understanding.”