|Davidson's "Mr. History," Malcolm Lester, Dies at Age 84
March 11, 2008
Contact: Bill Giduz
As much as he was revered as a teacher of American and British history at Davidson for 30 years, Malcolm Lester through personal example also taught students an important attitude toward life and work. His strong presence in college life ensured he will be remembered as much for who he was, as for what he did.
In Memoriam -- Malcolm Lester 1924-2008
Lester died Sunday evening March 9, 84 years after his birth in the Georgia heartland town of Georgetown. A memorial service will be held Wednesday afternoon, March 12 at 2 p.m. in the sanctuary of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, where Lester was a member for 47 years. Following the service, a reception will be held in Fellowship Hall.
Lester was steadfast and loyal to the principles of truth and propriety on the Davidson faculty. He served unprecedented terms of 25 years as chair of the history department and 20 years as chair of the faculty library committee. He also served Phi Beta Kappa as a local, regional, and national officer.
He retired from the faculty in 1989, but maintained a carrel in the library and continued research from there until shortly before his death. The library and that carrel were the places on campus he loved the most. As chair of the faculty library committee from 1968 to 1988, he worked closely with President Sam Spencer and then Library Director Chalmers Davidson as they spearheaded the design and construction of the E. H. Little Library. Leland Park, library director during much of Lester's term as chair, said that the "support, advice, and care which Dr. Lester gave during the planning of the library, as well as his constant-even dogged-championing the cause of the library's materials budget, are wonderful parts of his legacy at Davidson."
During Lester's tenure as chair of the library committee, the library holdings grew from 103,000 volumes to 335,000, and the annual budget grew from $14,000 to $1.2 million.
Lester was an outstanding student in undergraduate studies at Mercer University, winning the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award and graduating magna cum laude. He had been president of the student body, president of the Literary Society and -- naturally -- an assistant in the library.
He was hired by Mercer to teach history in 1946 immediately upon graduation, and quickly rose in the ranks from assistant professor to full professor and chair of the history department by 1954. He enrolled concurrently in graduate studies for master's and Ph.D. degrees in history at the University of Virginia, writing his dissertation on "Anglo American Diplomatic Problems arising from British Naval Operations in American Waters 1793-1802."
He received a Fulbright Scholarship for a year of study at the University of London in 1949-50. In 1954 he accepted the position at Mercer of Dean of the College of Liberal Arts in addition to teaching. His academic interests focused on 18th- and 19th-century British and American history, and on Anglo-American relations. He had a particular interest in British naval history, and within the past year wrote an article on a British officer who established a base in Bermuda.
He and his wife of 52 years, Pauline "Polly" Domingos Lester, were married in 1956 in her hometown of Macon, Ga. In 1959, Malcolm Lester joined the faculty at Davidson and the Lesters and relocated here.
By 1962, Lester was chair of Davidson's history department, and maintained that office for 25 years. He was named Dana Professor in 1977.
|Lester was a staunch supporter of the college library.|
Lester had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa in graduate school, and became increasingly active in the organization at Davidson. In 1970 he was elected chair of the South Atlantic District. He then chaired the national finance committee, and in 1976 was elected to a six-year term as one of only 24 senators, helping guide its national affairs.
His scholarship in Anglo-American relations was so insightful that he enjoyed the rare honor for an American in 1978 of election as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London. That was also the year that the University of Virginia published his book Anthony Merry Redivivus, a Reappraisal of the British Minister to the United States 1803-06, which concerned Britain's controversial third minister to America during President Jefferson's first administration.
Lester contributed dozens of articles and book reviews to historical journals, including American National Biography, Dictionary of National Biography, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, and the Encyclopedia of World War I. He was commissioned to write seven articles for Oxford University Press's American National Biography.
He is remembered fondly by many students as founder in the mid 1970s of the college's Cambridge summer study program. He and Polly served as on-site directors several times. That program not only benefited students, but it allowed Lester to regularly travel to his beloved England for research on history, and on the architecture of English country houses.
One student recalled the Lesters' good humored willingness to join impromptu late-night dancing in a Wolfson College entertainment hall despite having been roused from slumber. When asked about his other impressions of Lester, the student added, "I learned the value of hard work, the importance of persistence and the need for dedication. But more importantly, Dr. Lester was kind, caring and compassionate toward me. From this I learned that students were his first priority."
His courses at Davidson, especially "The Civil War and Reconstruction," were always heavily subscribed. He commanded the classroom with an authoritarian drawl that was neither wholly British nor Southern, a careful, measured delivery of material, quick wit and total knowledge of the subject at hand.
He expected high standards from students. In a retirement tribute, his former departmental colleague David Shi, now president of Furman University, wrote, "He displayed a wonderful ability to stir the indolent student by a Socratic question or galvanize the drowsy with a rousing anecdote." Shi continued, "Quick to scorn shoddiness and indolence but delighted to praise keen effort and encourage latent abilities, he challenged students to exert their intellects as strenuously as they indulged their passions outside the classroom."
|A British flag hanging in Lester's office bore testimony to his love of that nation.|
One student said, "His lectures were vivid and vibrant, oftentimes amusing, many times moving, and always thoroughly researched and organized. He spun colorful tales about characters, like the story of the first 'real' Thanksgiving at Berkeley plantation in Virginia, and recollections of the activities of prominent figures in history such as 'that dunderhead' Aaron Burr."
He was an equally powerful presence in the college administration. He was "Mr. History" throughout his career, and guided the department as a "benevolent authoritarian" during his 25-years as its chair. He was a shrewd administrator, keen judge of people, and never lacked an opinion.
He could be blunt and opinionated, and wasn't shy about confronting people who didn't share his conviction. He was a masterful politician in an era when that was more a term of honor than derision, and a powerful presence at a time that trait was respected.
When told that someone complained he rubbed people's fur the wrong way, Lester smiled and replied, "Then let the cats turn around!"
At the same time, he was socially warm, engaging and gentle, as entertaining as he was learned. The E.H. Little Library's new director, Jill Gremmels, recalled fondly that Lester recently invited her for tea in his basement carrel, where they spent a delightful time getting acquainted.
His efforts on behalf of the history department forged for it an important presence on campus, and he helped institute new programs for students, such as the department's honors program with written theses.
In addition to his work for the library, he served on a wide array of faculty committees. They included the educational policy committee, faculty hearings committee, faculty study and research committee, executive committee (several times), steering committee for self-study, graduate scholarship committee and the presidential search committee that selected Sam Spencer. He chaired the honorary degree committee, pre-law committee, finance committee, and he was faculty parliamentarian. He was included in Who's Who in America and served for four years on the N.C. Revolution Bicentennial Committee.
He participated in a number of historical societies, including the Society for Nautical Research, Sons of Confederate Veterans, American and Southern Historical Associations, Organization of American Historians and Omicron Delta Kappa. He belonged to the British National Trust, the University of Buckingham's international advisory council and the Conference on British Studies.
His primary involvement outside the college was Davidson College Presbyterian Church (DCPC). He was an elder there for 40 years, served as a permanent commissioner to Presbytery, was moderator of Mecklenburg Presbytery in 1974, and was a commissioner to the General Assembly in 1976. He served on many committees and commissions, and as DCPC archivist from 1982 until his death. In that role, Lester recovered complete sets of minutes and church records since 1837, many of which had been previously lost. In 2004, the church presented him with a special plaque to honor his service.
He is survived by Polly of the Pines at Davidson; by a sister in law, Lucia Domingos Chapman; by nieces Lucia Chapman Carr (David) and Betty Chapman Freeman (Ed); by nephews James E. Chapman (Jessie) and Carl F. Chapman; by cousins Mary Griffith Bledsoe and F. Nick Bledsoe; and by other cousins, nieces and nephews.
His legacy at Davidson College has been endowed with the Malcolm Lester Fund, a resource that allows the history department to fund guest lectures for its senior seminar, send students to conferences and support student research projects. It was established in 1993, and Lester himself was a major donor. Memorial gifts may be made to the Malcolm Lester History Fund (Davidson College, P.O. Box 7174, Davidson, NC 28035) and The Pines Residents Fund (400 Avinger Lane, Davidson, NC 28036).
# # #
Posted By: Bill Giduz