Roy T. Wortman
November 23, 1940 ‒ July 23, 2017
Roy Wortman has died at age seventy-six
Roy T. Wortman, a longtime member of Kenyon’s history faculty, died on Sunday, July 23, 2017, in hospice care at the Laurels in Mount Vernon, Ohio. He was seventy-six and a resident of Gambier, Ohio.
“Professor Wortman was a legendary teacher whom alumni described to me in superlatives,” remarked President Sean M. Decatur. “Once I met him, I discovered that all of the wonderful things I’d heard from alumni were true: he was thoughtful and warm, a deep listener who exuded not only wisdom but passion about history, the liberal arts, Kenyon, and most of all his students. I am honored to have known him; he will be missed.”
Wortman was born on November 23, 1940, the son of Beatrice Brout Wortman and Moses Wortman, and grew up in the Bronx, New York. A 1962 graduate of Colorado State University, he earned an M.A. (1965) from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. (1971) from Ohio State University. He taught as a Woodrow Wilson Foundation teaching fellow and instructor at Central State University during the 1965-66 academic year and as a teaching associate at Ohio State from 1967 to 1971.
During his time in college and graduate school, Wortman served a total of nine years in the Army National Guard of the United States. He was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant (E-6).
Wortman came to Kenyon in 1971 as an assistant professor of history. He won tenure and promotion to associate professor in 1976 and promotion to full professor in 1988. Known for his expertise in American labor history and in Native American/Indian autobiography and history, he was a proponent of the integration of Native American/Indian materials into primary, secondary, and post-secondary curricula. Having been a visiting professor there earlier, he spent the fall semester of 1999 as a visiting researcher and lecturer at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, Regina Campus, in Canada, where he also spoke to graduate students in the Department of Aboriginal Education at the University of Saskatchewan.
In 2000, Wortman won the Trustee Teaching Excellence Award. He was noted not only for his expertise in Kenyon’s classrooms but also for his contributions to many conferences, summer programs, and workshops on campus and far beyond. Included among the latter were a 2003 National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored workshop for school teachers titled “Native Voices: Self and Society through American Indian Autobiography,” for which he was both coordinator and professor (along with a Canadian colleague), as well as a Telluride Association Summer Program on American Political Thought for talented high-school students.
Wortman was the author of From Syndicalism to Trade Unionism: The IWW in Ohio, 1905-50 and Progress and Parity: The Ohio Farmers Union, 1910-82. He was also the author of numerous scholarly articles and the coeditor of For the General Welfare. Grants in support of his research and teaching came from such prestigious sources as the Fulbright Foundation, the Newberry Library, and the Smithsonian Institution, while the Ford Foundation appointed him to the evaluation committee for its Pre-doctoral Fellowships for Minorities.
As Robert A. Oden Jr., the College’s president from 1995 to 2002, recalled, “Professor Roy Wortman was the very embodiment of all that we most honor in Kenyon faculty members: a superb teacher whose teaching was altered and enlivened by his original and — always — solidly documented research.
“Roy had a sense of moral seriousness the likes of which I’ve not known. He was an ardent supporter of the U.S. Constitution. To me and many others, he was a loyal friend. Above all, Roy was a loving husband and father, a good and decent man, a man of unfailing integrity.”
Wortman’s support of the Constitution led to his membership in the National Rifle Association, a rare credential for a faculty member at a liberal-arts college. Although Second Amendment rights were far from his only concern with the Constitution, he contributed articles such as “The Political Culture of Contemporary American Liberalism and Firearms Prohibition” to the Journal on Firearms and Public Policy. He regularly bemoaned the state of American liberalism, which he characterized as arrogant.
It was a sentiment shared by many of his students over the years. James R. Pierce Jr. ’78, now the chairman of JLT Specialty Insurance Services in Houston, Texas, observed, “Roy Wortman epitomized egalitarian virtue. He was an honest, forthright defender of the Liberal tradition. And let there be no mistake; he took serious umbrage at those who abused the classic definition of the word Liberal. He was appalled by those who stifled dissent and yet called themselves liberals. His distinction was clear. They were liberals with a small case l. They did not deserve recognition as Liberals with a capital L.
“Roy was one of my heroes,” added Pierce. “I treasure my decades-long relationship with him. He epitomized everything wonderful about the liberal-arts experience, and indeed, our great country.”
During the College’s “Claiming Our Place” campaign, a group of alumni led by Pierce endowed a distinguished teaching professorship in his honor, which he held from its inception in 2001 until his retirement in 2005. At that point, it was renamed the Roy T. Wortman Chair in History, which has been held by Reed S. Browning and Wendy F. Singer.
“My proudest Kenyon moment was when I was invited to become holder of the Roy Wortman Chair in History,” stated Reed Browning, a professor emeritus of history who taught at the College from 1967 to 2007. “Roy was the most widely admired and appreciated teacher I knew in my Kenyon days. And there was good reason for that admiration and appreciation: he always put his students’ interests first and gave them his time, whether in grading, in counseling, or in writing letters of support and recommendation. As a result, he had more ongoing contacts with alumni, of all student generations, than any teacher I’ve known.”
Wortman’s regard for the duties of citizenship extended to his involvement in campus governance. At various times, he served as chairman of the Committee on Advising and Academic Standing (or Advising and Standards), the Academic Infractions Board and the Judicial Board, and the Department of History. He also willingly took on roles as disparate as advisor, coach, and instructor of the Kenyon Fencing Club, member of innumerable search committees, and Admissions Visit Day speaker.
The ideals of citizenship and liberty also informed his long fascination with Freemasonry. In 1998, he formally joined the Masons, whom he described in an interview as “an ancient order, very misunderstood, deeply rooted in history, liberty, and individual conscience. They emphasize relief, truth, brotherly love, and mutual support.” He told a student interviewer he had joined “informally” as a child, when his mother told him that his grandfather had been a Mason.
Many of Wortman’s students, from his earliest days on campus until his last, found in him not only a brilliant teacher but also a friend and role model. Such words as “honest,” “loyal,” “principled,” and “generous” recur throughout their reminiscences (some of which are appended to this obituary under the heading “Tributes”).
“If I had to describe Roy Wortman, I would say he was the salt of the earth,” offered Jack Au ’73, chief credit officer with Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in New York City. “I first met Roy, in the basement of Ascension Hall, as a junior at Kenyon in 1972. I was waiting for my faculty advisor on my independent study of ‘The Chinese in the United States during the 1800s’ when I was befriended by Roy, who had an office next door to my advisor. That brief encounter blossomed into a friendship of more than forty years.
“I knew Roy was an excellent professor not because I took a course from him,” he added. “I knew it because he taught me how to treat people with compassion and respect. He would address me as ‘Fellow Worker,’ a salutation that went back to his graduate work on the Industrial Workers of the World, or the ‘Wobblies.’ This union, the first to include women, African Americans, and immigrants among its members, influenced Roy in his view of everyone as his equals. He was humble and grateful, and he was extremely loyal to his friends.”
Wortman’s example and friendship were also shared with his fellow Kenyon faculty members, both in the history department and beyond. “I did not meet Roy Wortman when I came to Kenyon for my on-campus interview in late 1999,” remembered Professor of History Bruce Kinzer. “It was a sabbatical year for Roy, who was far away on the Canadian prairies trying to learn as much as he could about the indigenous peoples of that region. His name, however, kept coming up, in ways that suggested he was someone to be reckoned with.
“Roy was a latecomer in my life; I a latecomer in his. I needed no knowledge of awards and honors to appreciate Roy’s dedication to teaching. Day and night he toiled away in his office, preparing for classes, evaluating student work, holding lengthy individual meetings with students to discuss their research projects. He did not allow himself or those with whom he met to regard such meetings as optional. I had the impression he remembered every student he had ever taught.
“Our friendship grew incrementally. A man of fierce conviction and unfailing sincerity, he gave unstinting loyalty, and expected the same in return. Difference of opinion he could respect; dishonesty of any kind he could not abide. He had great depth of character. Being his colleague was a privilege; being his friend an honor.”
Wortman retired in 2005 and received an honorary doctorate in humane letters at that year’s Commencement. In the citation, written and read by his colleague and friend Reed Browning, Wortman was addressed as “a man of principle” who understood teaching to be his vocation. Browning declared, “To this career, you have brought an array of talents: a rich understanding of American history, a gift for clarifying complex issues, an insistence that all informed points of view are legitimate in the classroom, an uncommon readiness to listen, and a legendary approachability that has made you the enduring friend to a long line of the College’s alumni.”
“We have all lost a light of simple human decency,” remarked Jean Amabile ’75, an adjunct professor of American law at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. “Roy saw history from the perspective of the underdogs, Native Americans, Blacks, workers. I remember him relating his delight at sitting around talking with Canadian First Nation scholars and members on his exchanges to Regina, Saskatchewan. He was perfectly aligned with Kenyon’s ethos that professors’ jobs were to inspire their students.”
Wortman is survived by his wife of fifty years, Barbara Segal Wortman; two daughters, Jennifer F. Wortman (John Scarboro) and Kara Wortman Abramson (Marc Abramson); three grandchildren, Naomi and Eli Scarboro and Tzipora Abramson; a sister, Jocelyn Wortman Hansen (Richard Hansen); his mother-in-law, Selma Grumbach (Martin Grumbach); two sisters-in-law, Deborah Bernheim (Harry Bernheim) and Marilyn Heasley (James Lukacs); three nieces; and one grandniece.
Memorial contributions may be made to Ohio Lodge 199, 25901 New Guilford Road, Bladensburg, Ohio 43005, Baldwin Shrine in care of Ed Crosby, 5726 Morgan Center Road, Mount Vernon 43050, and Interchurch Social Services, P.O. Box 1052, Mount Vernon, Ohio 43050.
Wortman’s funeral will be private, for the family only. A memorial service, at which community members will be welcome, will be scheduled and announced at a later date.
Tributes to Professor Wortman
“Roy didn’t just teach with passion,” said Doug Campbell ’91, a consultant and writer living in Northville, Michigan. “He didn’t just care for his students. Roy poured himself into other people’s lives. Inside and outside the classroom, he constantly and consistently inquired about what was going on and how others were doing. Roy wanted to make sure his family, friends, and students were thriving, not just surviving.
“Roy was one of the people who encouraged me to pursue seminary, which I did. At Princeton Theological Seminary, I was across the street from where his daughter Kara was an undergraduate at Princeton University. When Roy visited Kara, we’d get together for dinners and debates. He always wanted to know how I was and not just what I studied. I felt cherished and loved by Roy.
“As I finished my studies in seminary, Roy was so encouraging of my calling that he and Barbara traveled to hear my very first sermon at a small church in West Virginia. They also came to my wedding, where they read from the Hebrew Scriptures during the service.”
Luke Feely ’91, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, recalled, “Roy had an open mind and a great curiosity. He always wanted to know what I was thinking – the poor political-science major set adrift in the real world. Once in a while we would exchange emails. I would send him some poems I had written, or tell him what I thought was going on in my corner of the business world. His responses were inquisitive and sometimes challenging. I was extra careful of what I wrote and how I wrote it. I didn’t want to put forward anything less than my best when presenting my thoughts to him. One time he sent me a white owl to signify wisdom. How embarrassing. I told him that that was my first intellectual recognition since the eighth grade. It sits on my bookshelf above my first history book (a history of Greece), positioned so that I have to reach up for it. I will dust it today.
“I last saw Roy a year ago at my thirty-fifth reunion. We talked for about two hours. He said ‘I’m seventy-five, happy, and not afraid of dying.’ I told him I was. He asked, ‘Why?’ I said dying meant that you were about to get the results of the biggest test you’ve ever taken with consequences bigger than you can imagine. Unnerving, to say the least. He asked, ‘Do you go to Mass?’ I said yes. He said he didn’t think I had much to worry about. Inspiring, I guess.”
“As a professor of history, Roy had two passions: one for teaching and one for seeing that his students succeeded — not just at Kenyon but throughout their lives,” recalled Judy Hoffman ’73, a retired state government official in Columbus, Ohio. “A true mensch, he was genuinely interested in his students’ life goals and personal happiness, and he was devoted to helping them achieve those things. Roy took it upon himself to try to find jobs for his students by reaching out to alumni and others in various professions to recommend students to them, or by suggesting to students avenues he thought would lead to good employment fits. Inside the classroom, he was enthusiastic about whatever he was teaching, and he made history meaningful by making it relatable. Roy taught without pretention and with the purpose of involving his students in lively discussion.
“Much as he loved Kenyon, Roy had many friends and interests outside the College and found as much in common with blue-collar workers as he did with his colleagues who had earned Ph.D.s. His life was a rich balance of academia, family, community, and travel. He was proudest when discussing his two highly accomplished daughters, Jenny and Kara.”
“We called him ‘Cowboy Roy,’” remembered John Lentz Jr. ’79, senior pastor of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “He was passionate for his subject, and he demanded an open and critical mind. He made me love history not as a list of dates and events but rather as a worldview of actions and reactions that are intrinsically connected, of patterns to uncover, a puzzle to piece together; as a matrix of cause and effect, a poem of verse, meter, and rhyme; as an unfolding story of humanity at its best and worst.
“Roy took me shooting at his gun club. We talked religion and politics. He sent me a large moth-eaten Kenyon pennant that hangs on the wall in the study. He was Kenyon.”
“Since I met Roy Wortman as a Kenyon freshman in 1971, until his recent passing, he was a true mentor who always encouraged me,” said Elizabeth Lerch Oxley ’75, an attorney based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Roy was one of the finest men I have ever known, and I am so fortunate and grateful that he was my teacher and friend. Both Kenyon and the wider academic community were greatly enriched by Roy’s kindness, brilliance, integrity, and excellent work in his field.
“Roy was most of all deeply devoted to his wife, his daughters and their husbands, and his grandchildren. He set a great example for us all as to how to live richly and well. I will miss him greatly.”
“Roy was a man of great personal integrity,” declared Patrick Reagan ’75, a retired professor of history at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. “Several times while I was at Kenyon, I did not know if I could return for the next semester, because of tight finances and low-paying summer jobs. Seizing the initiative like a skilled military leader (did you know Roy had a career in the National Guard?), Roy marched around campus and took my case to the financial-aid director, who came through with additional aid.
“During my senior year, Roy took me to Columbus to gain access to the Ohio State University library and tried (unsuccessfully –this Irishman can be stubborn!) to convince me not to go on to graduate study in history. So one day, I had to march into his office, scared out of my wits, and announce, ‘Mr. Wortman, I am going to go to graduate school whether you like it or not. I want your help. Will you give it to me?’ In charac¬teristic fashion, Roy went full bore to help me apply for various graduate schools, made a special trip on his own time and money to talk to Ohio State professor Robert H. Bremner on my behalf, and helped me land a four-year Presidential Fellowship to his own graduate-school alma mater.
“I saw Roy often during my time in graduate school, and from 1980 to 1982, we worked together as friends and colleagues at Ken¬yon. Our time together as fellow workers in the vineyard of liberty is one of the treasured periods of my life. After that, I moved on to another college, where I tried to live up to his high standards.
“Only very rarely have I met people as compassionate, challenging, unorthodox, and humane as Roy. As a teacher, he served his students and the College well. As an adviser, mentor, friend, and colleague, Roy deserved more than we could ever offer him.”
Jennifer R. Sauers ’93, of Walnut Creek, California, met Wortman, “a fantastic teacher,” in his course on liberalism during her sophomore year. She remembered, “In our junior year, one of my best friends had her financial-aid package abruptly revoked. Professor Wortman and others took up her cause and prevailed. Years later, my friend told me she didn’t know who had saved the day; she’d just been told that several professors had advocated for her — some who knew her and some ‘on principle.’
“Anyone who spent any time at all with Roy Wortman could tell you that ‘on principle’ was how he lived and why he was so effective at getting the best out of people because he always, unfailingly, gave the best of himself. He changed my life profoundly and all for the better, and there are no words to say how sorry I am that he’s gone.”
James Sheridan ’00, a high-school teacher and coach in Houston, Texas, recalled, “Roy Wortman was a strong spirit who sustained me during difficult times, and who introduced me to the wonders of James T. Farrell, Norman Mailer, Frank Capra, and more in courses I found both electric and deeply insightful. His straightforward intensity was piercing and inspiring. Professor Wortman shared so much yet always wanted to know what I thought, what my observations were about every book we read, every film we studied. During my sophomore through senior years, he met with me many times, read my work and critiqued it, served as a sounding board as I navigated where I wanted my life to go.”
“The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis once said, ‘Ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.’ Roy Wortman was an ideal teacher, a bridge for me and countless others at Kenyon to find our way in the world, and he will be deeply, deeply missed. I carry him with me into my own classroom every day.”
“I will miss Roy for the way he embodied the life of a teacher-scholar in the department and beyond and for his unfailing interest in my own career and family,” observed Wendy Singer, the current incumbent of the Wortman Professorship. “He had this special ability to bring out the best in each student—both the most gifted and those who struggled—a skill I have sought to emulate. And yet he was an accomplished scholar, himself, who introduced the field of American Indian history to Kenyon.
“Roy showed his genuine interest in his colleagues’ work by reading broadly in all kinds of subjects. He frequently sent me news stories he encountered on India, my special field, and he was happy to talk about them, often cutting through jargon and what he called ‘political correctness’ to ask intriguing and probing questions. But I valued too our personal relationship. When my son, Aaron Lynn [’14], was born, Roy said his name sounded like a Formula One figure, and as Aaron grew up, Roy would ask with warm humor how the ‘race-car driver’ was doing.”
“Roy Wortman was that rare person on whom you could count to be honest, to remain loyal, and not to waver on his principled stand,” said Judy Smith, professor emerita of English.
Elizabeth Pearson Soares ’90, now living in Weston, Massachusetts, recalled, “I first came to know Roy in 1988 as a student in his American Indian history seminar. We were a small group who gathered each week around a table in a Seitz House room filled with natural light. Roy, who always spoke so eloquently and passionately about the topics we covered, had this wonderful way of engaging and nurturing his students, inspiring and challenging us to think deeply, expansively, fairly, and critically.
“In that special intimate setting, with Professor Wortman as our guide, I experienced the true joy of learning — and even of self-discovery. I learned during the course of the seminar that one of my ancestors was commissioner of Indian affairs during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and Roy encouraged me to research and write about him for my final paper. Writing that paper with his tutelage and mentoring remains one of the most rewarding of my academic experiences. Roy was the best of role models, a true gift in my life, and I will always keep him close to my heart.”
Andrew Stein ’87, a Latin American analyst in the Office of Opinion Research at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., said, “Although I had him for a survey course in my sophomore year, my bond with Roy was not cemented primarily in the classroom. Rather, it formed gradually because of his sincere and enduring interest in the development and well-being of his students. I just learned for the first time yesterday that when I was hired for my first assistant professor job, after getting my Ph.D., Roy was there pulling for me via a then-colleague and other former student of his who taught at the same school.
“We were friends for thirty-three years, and his passing has left a big void. If I had to sum up Roy in just a few words, I would focus above all on his integrity, sincerity, humility, and complete honesty. He was never one to take the path of least resistance, or follow fads, or adopt the easy majority opinion. His character would not permit this.
“From my Jewish studies courses in Gambier, I remember a line in Psalm 15 that speaks to what Roy was like: one ‘that sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not.’ Also in Proverbs 11:3 and 13:22, ‘the integrity of the upright shall guide them’; ‘a good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children,’ and 20:7, ‘The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him.’”
Bryn Stole ’11, a reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate in Louisiana, remembered, “I met Roy Wortman after he’d already officially retired from teaching, although he was still working as an emeritus professor. He signed me into a class he was team-teaching with [Professor Emeritus of Political Science] John Elliott in the spring of my freshman year. (The course was, on paper, closed to freshmen.) Roy taught me nearly ever semester after that and shepherded my senior honors thesis through my procrastination and a concussion, editing each chapter several times and giving more of himself than I could’ve ever asked. We spent hours each week in his last little office down in the bowels of Ascension Hall, plaques from Masonic lodges and a hat from his National Guard unit on the windowsill.
“Roy was an independent thinker, skeptical of institutions and wary of dogma and rigid ideology. He was conscientious with students and driven by his own particular understanding of duty. He also had a contrarian streak and a slightly impish sense of humor. A man whose politics always seemed tough to classify. His writings, experiences and research might seem perplexing to the less flexible among us. He wrote oral histories of radical labor activists, especially the International Workers of the World, and took deep interests in coal miners and Native Americans. In the classes I took with Roy, he taught the history of the revolutionary left with a sympathetic understanding of the workers, writers, and activists, even as he unpacked the tragic ironies of the creeds they followed.”
To view the obituary online or leave the Wortman family a condolence, visit www.snyderfuneralhomes.com.
The Dowds-Snyder Funeral Home is honored to serve the family of Roy T. Wortman.