Obituaries

By Coleman, Patrick K.; Whayne, Jeannie | The Journal of Southern History, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Obituaries


Coleman, Patrick K., Whayne, Jeannie, The Journal of Southern History


Paul C. Nagel, historian and biographer, passed away on May 22, 2011, in Edina, Minnesota, from complications due to pancreatic cancer. He was eighty-five years old. Nagel was born in Independence, Missouri, and came to Minnesota at the close of World War II to fish and to earn three degrees at the University of Minnesota, the final being the Ph.D. in history in 1952. It was there he fell in love with Joan R. Peterson, a librarian at the university, whom he married in 1948. Joan died in 2010. Paul Nagel is survived by his three sons and a granddaughter.

The peripatetic Nagel had two careers, the first being in higher education. He was briefly a member of the faculty of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, before moving to Kentucky, where he taught and wrote for fifteen years. In addition to serving as professor of history at the University of Kentucky, he became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1966. In 1969 Nagel moved to Columbia, Missouri, to become vice president for academic affairs for the University of Missouri's four-campus system. Institutions where Nagel held visiting faculty appointments included Amherst College, Vanderbilt University, University of Georgia, and Duke University.

Nagel's second career began in 1980, when he became director of the Virginia Historical Society, a private research library in Richmond. He left that position five years later, devoting himself full-time to writing. He wrote nine books and was coauthor of three others. His early work was designed for an academic audience, but by the late 1970s Nagel aimed for the general reader. Nagel is remembered best for three widely read volumes about John and Abigail Adams and their descendants. His other successful books include a biography of Robert E. Lee and his forebears, books about his native Missouri, and a work on artist George Caleb Bingham.

Nagel was elected a fellow of the Society of American Historians, and in 1985 he served as president of the Southern Historical Association. He was a trustee of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for twelve years and served as chair of its committee on education and research. He was a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine and a fellow of the Pilgrim Society and of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and he was named by the Virginia legislature as a cultural laureate of that state. Among his awards were tributes for literary distinction given by the Society of Midland Authors, the Missouri Library Association, and the Colonial Dames. In 1998 Nagel received a Minnesota Book Award for his biography of John Quincy Adams. Nagel was especially proud of becoming the third recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Adams Institute, after Senator Edward Kennedy and historian David McCullough.

Paul Nagel was nearly indiscriminate in his love of people and his interest in their lives, which must have been a useful instinct for a biographer. He took to heart the lessons he learned from the great people whose lives he chronicled. He noted that John Quincy Adams's "first concern" was "seeking discipline, modesty, tolerance, [and] calmness of spirit"; these traits also defined Nagel, making him, again like Adams, a "most brilliant dinner companion" (Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life [New York, 1997], ix, x).

Influenced by years of scholarly research and a librarian spouse, Nagel had a deep love for libraries. He served as president of the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries, and his papers and books will be available to researchers at the University of Minnesota's Elmer L.

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