The Passing of Ben Labaree

Williams faculty and staff,

I write to share the sad news that Ben Labaree, Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, and founder of the Williams-Mystic Coastal and Ocean Studies Program, passed away Monday night at the age of 94.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Leonard Woods Labaree Class of 1919 and Elizabeth Calkins Labaree, Ben served in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1945-1946 before earning his B.A. in history from Yale University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in American history from Harvard. He spent a year teaching at Connecticut College and then returned to Harvard, where for five years he taught American history alongside Bernard Bailyn ’44. Ben was recruited to Williams in 1963 by President Jack Sawyer to serve as Associate Professor of History and Dean of the College, and later became the Ephraim Williams Professor of American History.

While at Williams Ben continued to teach during his summers at the Munson Institute, a maritime history graduate program at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. In 1971 he started teaching a course there on maritime studies as part of Williams’ nascent Winter Study program. Its success led to the idea of a semester-long version. He and some of his students famously sketched this idea out on a napkin at a Dunkin’ Donuts en route back to Williamstown. Sadly, the fateful napkin has apparently been lost to history.

Retired Williams staffer Nancy McIntire worked closely with Ben during those years. She recalled Ben’s passion for the idea, which was so intense that he ultimately gave up his tenured professorship and relocated his whole family to Connecticut so he could direct the new program.

Williams-Mystic opened for its first full semester in 1977, and immediately drew students from Williams and 15 other schools. The student experience in those early days could charitably be described as “unadorned”: alumni fondly recall learning to feed and care for themselves in small clapboard houses loaned by Mystic Seaport. But from those rough roots grew an impressive type of experiential learning: Early Mystic cohorts traveled to the U.N. to study the law of the sea and to the North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to conduct experiments. Today, the program Ben Labaree built spans the study of everything from marine life to maritime commerce, and from Melville’s novels to the relationship among European colonization, the dispossession of Native American land and racial slavery in New England.

From the Seaport, Ben and family would annually decamp to their summer home, a former farm on Vinalhaven Island in Maine. His children, Ben, Jr., Jonathan and Sarah, remember him hammering out manuscripts on a manual typewriter at a makeshift desk in the farm’s old ox stall. As Jonathan Labaree says, “His time there tending gardens, sailing in the bay, and keeping the 1855 farmhouse in good repair informed his scholarly work just as much as his hours in libraries.”

Before retiring Ben returned to Williamstown to serve two years as director of the Center for Environmental Studies, where he had also taught in the Center’s—and his—earliest years at Williams. His course, Man and Nature (later Nature and the Americans) was likely one of the first environmental history courses in the nation. With his return to CES Ben also returned to full faculty standing, and thus was eligible to retire as professor emeritus from the college he loved.

Throughout his career, Ben Labaree was known for his care for students, often expressed with mischievous humor. His successor in the directorship, Professor of Marine Sciences Emeritus Jim Carlton, recalls him tricking students into staying in touch with their families. During offshore trips he would urge them to write postcards home before the ship passed the “mail buoy.” Later he would inform them they had missed the buoy. But since the cards were written they might as well mail them anyway, once they got ashore.

In his more pensive moments, as well as his humorous ones, Ben and his wife and lifelong partner Linda cared deeply for students, many of whom remember the couple and their children as a second family. The Labarees’ devotion comes out in a quote from Ben that Professor Carlton and his own successor, current Mystic director Tom Van Winkle, shared in an email memorial yesterday:

“The great thing about teaching is that the most important part of one’s contributions becomes a permanent part of your students—not just part of their intellects, but part of their whole being. The teacher contributes to a life-shaping process the implications of which are sometimes nothing less than awesome. A good teacher not only teaches students the subject, but also teaches them to enjoy learning, no matter what the subject matter.”

Ben Labaree is survived by his wife, Linda Prichard Labaree; his son, Ben Jr. ’82 with wife Alison Snow and son Danny; his son Jonathan ’85 with wife Lalla Carothers and their children, Olivia and Ben; his daughter Sarah Churchill ’87 with husband Craig Churchill ’86 and their children, Peter ’21, Lydia and Will; nephew David Labaree and niece Elizabeth Labaree. He will be honored during Williams-Mystic’s Alumni Reunion Day, Saturday, September 18, joined by members of the Labaree family.

Our deepest condolences go out to Ben’s family, colleagues and friends.