In Commemoration of John Hyde '56

To the Williams community,

I write with the promised commemoration of our colleague John Hyde ’56, Brown Professor of History, Emeritus, who passed away peacefully at the age of 93 in late March.

One of the most important things I can share about John, from a college perspective, is that after 36 years of teaching here he told a colleague he had “loved every minute of it.” I feel sure that generations of students would return the affection.

I want to start this commemoration, fittingly, with a bit of history: As some of you know, John was a direct descendant of Alvan Hyde, the first minister of Lee, Mass., and a Williams College trustee and vice president during the early 1800s. When Zephaniah Swift Moore announced his plan to relocate the school to Amherst in 1821, it was Alvan Hyde who persuaded the college to hold commencement here anyway, and later helped establish our alumni association—the nation’s first—in an effort to save the college at Williamstown. A member of the Hyde family has attended Williams in each of the ensuing generations but one.

In addition to John’s own standing as a member of the Class of 1956, the Hyde legacy includes John’s father, George A. Hyde ’16; his three brothers, George ’49, Arthur ’56 and Stephen ’64; his nieces, Assistant Professor of Physical Education and Head Field Hockey Coach Alix Barrale ’93 and Assistant Director of the 50th Reunion Program Kate ’96; nephew Michael ’91; great-niece Bridgett Hyde ’23 and great-nephew David Hyde ’27; and many cousins.

While I normally defer to a family’s obituary for details of the deceased’s early life—and I warmly recommend reading the Hyde family’s tribute, to which this notice is indebted—anyone who knew John will understand my duty to mention Mentholatum. John’s family had developed the patent medicine for cold relief in the late 1800s, and it is still widely used today. In his free time he worked on a history of Mentholatum and patent medicines, consulting in the process with the Wichita Sedgewick County (Kansas) Historical Museum Association, and publishing articles in the journal of the Kansas Historical Society, including one titled, with characteristic wit, “A Balm in Gilead” (Kansas History, 9, Winter 1986/1987, 150-63).

Now back to the present story: John Hyde arrived at Williams as a member of the Class of 1952. He left again to serve in the Navy, 1951-55, rising to Second Class Petty Officer and earning Good Conduct and Korean War Medals. During his service he also completed some junior-level coursework at George Washington University. After his honorable discharge he re-enrolled at Williams, serving as a Junior Advisor and graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1956, with a degree in history. According to a later article in the Williams Record, “the records show that he was once the assistant hockey manager, but the dean did not want to discuss it.” John later said he had earned Physical Education credits for scraping down the ice at the rink in between periods.

After Williams, John earned his Master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and started his Ph.D. at Harvard. Williams drew him back, however, with the offer of an instructorship in history in 1959. He completed his Harvard thesis, on the French politician Pierre Laval, four years later while teaching here full-time.

John’s areas of scholarly specialization included French history up to 1945 and political constitutional history and French-English relationships in the emergence of Canada as a nation. His teaching ranged more widely, including courses on everything from the French Revolution to a Winter Study on American Railroads (about which, more below). When asked about scholarly publications by the Dean of Faculty’s office, he once replied “none of note.” While this is an understatement, it is true that throughout his career John prioritized his teaching and service responsibilities above all else. That sense of duty had been cultivated in the military, and probably also growing up as the eldest brother in a large family.

During his Williams tenure John served as dean of freshman (1963–67), dean of the college (1967–70) and three times as chair of the Department of History (1975–76, 1980–81 and 1983–86). He served on fifteen different college committees and as secretary to the presidential search committee seeking a successor to President Emeritus Frank Oakley.

Yet all this organizational discipline cohabited quite naturally in John with an open-mindedness and ability to embrace change. John’s nieces Kate and Alix recall his capacity for seeing past the details of a given moment, to an essential, enduring spirit. That talent was evidenced in his work at critical moments of transformation for Williams. He helped guide the college through, among other historic changes, the abolition of fraternities (he was a member of the ad hoc committee charged with enacting the recommendations of the Angevine Report) and the move to co-education. Nancy McIntire, former assistant to the president for affirmative action and government relations, spoke vividly about his role in the latter, in today’s Record article by Max Billick ’26.

John was throughout his career deeply devoted to our students. As Peter Frost, Frederich L. Schuman Professor of International Relations, Emeritus, recalls,

Addressing the freshman class when he was dean of first years, John urged them to do three things: Think about dropping out. Get to know someone you don’t like. And take a course you might fail. Each of these was designed to shock, but was followed up with commentary that showed John was a loving and supportive dean, ready to help any student who was having trouble. His point was to challenge yourself, to think about why you were here and to get the best out of your education. It was truly characteristic of his intense love for Williams and its people.

When appointed dean of the college by President Sawyer a few years later, John was praised by the Record editorial board, who said of him, “Perhaps those who have never had extensive dealings with Dean Hyde are unaware of his sensitivity, interest and ability when confronted with the problems of students. These doubters need only consult students who have had such contact with Dean Hyde, particularly junior advisers, to learn of his thorough grasp of problems and the warmth and humor with which these problems are met.”

John retired from Williams in June 1995. In 2002, the college awarded him the Rogerson Cup, our highest honor for alumni service. His legacy of teaching excellence is honored with the John Hyde Teaching Fellowship, established in 2016 and given to select senior faculty to encourage “versatility in teaching and development of courses that promote broad-based learning.” The current Hyde Teaching Fellow is Professor of Psychology Kate Stroud.

Even in retirement, John remained a constant, beneficent presence. After I arrived in 2018, I often had the pleasure of running into him at athletics competitions. He was especially enamored of hockey and baseball: the Hyde family had started the first baseball club in Wichita, Kansas, and naturally John had immersed himself in the history of the game. Indeed, he was such a reliable presence that in 2003 the college honored him with an endowed bench at Cole Field. The fact that he had received an endowed bench, while his faculty colleagues merely held endowed chairs was a subject for great mirth. But it was mixed with pride. In his remarks at the bench’s dedication, John said,

My brother George and I share a particular liking for Willa Cather’s novel, Song of the Lark. In the novel’s epilogue, she describes an elderly resident of a small town who spends her days sitting on her front porch, waiting for news of the outside, especially about former residents of the town, and eager to tell the news and to recall the past to anyone who passes by. “So,” Cather wrote, “into all the little settlements of quiet people, tidings of what their boys and girls are doing in the world bring refreshment, bring to the old, memories, and to the young, dreams.”

These benches are my front porch and my place to sit. This is where I hope to find refreshment, always eager to hear tidings of what my students are doing in the world and to tell the stories of the past.

That quote speaks of stillness and reflection. But another part of John’s spirit craved motion, particularly the motion of the railroad. He was a frequent lecturer on the history and preservation of railroads (locally, he gave popular lectures on the history of trolleys as modes of local public transportation), taught the aforementioned Winter Study on American Railroads and traveled the world by train, including four trips on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Charles L. MacMillan Professor of Natural Science, Emeritus, Markes Johnson, shared this anecdote from one of John’s early rides through Norway,

Probably before he came to Williams, John embarked on a train adventure in Norway. Having a very long and narrow geography, the longer routes provide sleeping cars. When John went to his assigned berth, he found that only one other person would be there for the night. Apparently, the gentleman was a member of the Norwegian clergy. Motioning for John to join him, the clergyman knelt down at the side of one of the bunks prepared for an evening prayer. John complied, but the prayer was exceedingly long and John understood not one word of it. Rising to retire to his own bunk, the clergyman motioned for him to return and offer his own prayer. John did not have a prayer in mind, but while growing up his mother had encouraged him to memorize by heart some long, narrative poems. John delivered a poem with great feeling and, afterwards, the clergyman (who did not understand a word of English), patted him on the shoulder as the two went to their respective bunks.

He also led popular Williams Alumni Trips throughout the world, not to mention spending time with his extended family at their camp in northern Ontario.

John Hyde is survived by his sisters-in-law, Alison (Arthur) Hyde and Sally (Steve) Hyde, twelve nieces and nephews, and sixteen grandnieces and grandnephews. He is predeceased by his four siblings.

Friends and family are invited to attend a memorial service on Thursday, May 9, 2024 at 11:00 AM at Thompson Memorial Chapel on the Williams College campus followed by a reception at the Williams Inn from 1 to 3 PM. Those who knew John will not be surprised that he left very specific instructions for his executors, including a note that “funerals are for the living” and proposing a “big spread and an open bar.” I am not surprised that John’s good hospitality exceeds even the usual limits of mortality.

In lieu of flowers, the family kindly request donations be made to the John Hyde Teaching Fellowship at Williams College, celebrating John’s lifelong dedication to the college and higher education.

Our thoughts go out to John Hyde’s family, friends, colleagues, students and all those whose lives were enriched by his presence.