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History Scholar Richard L. Watson Jr. Dies

Richard L. Watson Jr.

Richard L. Watson, Jr., a professor emeritus of history at Duke University cited for his humanitarian efforts, died Friday morning at Duke Hospital following a brief illness. He was 85. An influential historian, Watson was recognized for his service to the university and the local community. He helped establish the St. Philip's Community Kitchen and the Durham Urban Ministry Center. Also, starting in the mid-1980s and continuing until his death, he led a delegation of volunteers to the Durham County Jail to visit inmates and to give them someone to talk to. Duke presented Watson with the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service, the institution's highest service award, in 1988 in recognition of his 45 years on the Duke faculty and related work on numerous academic committees. Later, in 1992, the Duke University Campus Ministry granted him its Humanitarian Service Award in acknowledgment of his selflessness and sustained involvement in community outreach programs. "He made quite an impact on the university, the Durham community and beyond," said Jack Cell, a Duke history professor and longtime friend of Watson. "Every university needs its Dick Watsons, and unfortunately they are in short supply." A native of Mount Hermon, Mass., Watson attended Yale University and graduated in 1935 with a bachelor's degree. He continued his studies there and subsequently earned a master's and a Ph.D., both in history. Watson arrived at Duke in 1939, and in the years that followed he rose from instructor to assistant professor, associate professor and to full professorship. He retired in 1984 but continued to serve the university, both in the classroom and on university committees. He was secretary to the university's Academic Council from 1984 to 1990, and also was active in the university's FOCUS program, which offers intensive educational experiences for first-year students. Right from the start, Watson was active in service to the university and Durham. He served as chairman of the department of history from 1960 to 1967. Later, when an ideological split concerning Vietnam divided the department, he served as acting chairman during a year of reconciliation in 1970. Watson's tenure at Duke was interrupted briefly when the Army drafted him in 1941. He served initially in an anti-aircraft division and after that was assigned to the Air Historical Office Headquarters, where he was stationed from 1943 to 1946. Upon his return to campus, Watson, along with a Duke colleague, Arthur Ferguson, was invited to work on a comprehensive, seven-volume history of the Air Force in World War II. The first volume in the series was published in 1948 by the University of Chicago Press. Watson also was author of five books and dozens of scholarly articles. His papers frequently were published in the South Atlantic Quarterly, the North Carolina Historical Review and the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Watson also contributed to the community through the theater. His love of the stage was apparent through his work with the Durham Savoyards, a local group that presents annual performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. After his retirement, Watson stepped up his work in the community in part at the encouragement of the rector at St. Philips Episcopal. Service to the community was always one of Watson's priorities, family members said. "His work on behalf of the prison ministry was very important to him," said John Bartlett, Watson's son-in-law. "He worked on that project up until his death. From his hospital bed, he was organizing people to bring books to the inmates." Watson's wife Ruth died in 1998. The couple is survived by three children: Richard L. Watson III of Rocky Mount, James B. Watson of Chapel Hill and Patricia Bartlett of Durham, and nine grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Duke Chapel on Tuesday, Sept. 26, at 2 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be sent to one of the following funds:

  • The R.L. Watson, Jr., Fellowship Foundation (for graduate students in history), care of the Department of History, P.O. Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, N.C. 27708-0719;
  • The St. Philips Episcopal Church Jail Ministry, care of St. Philips Episcopal Church, 403 E. Main St., Durham, N.C., 27701;
  • St. Philips Community Kitchen, 112 North Queen St., Durham, N.C., 27701.

Written by Noah Bartolucci.