Vann Remembered for Being a Bold Thinker and Demonstrating Respect

Editorial StaffFebruary 10, 20224min
Vann_Richard_001 copy
Richard Vann
Richard Vann, 1997. (Photo courtesy of Wesleyan’s Special Collections & Archives)

Richard “Dick” T. Vann, professor emeritus of history and letters, died on Feb. 1 at the age of 90.

Vann received bachelor’s degrees from Southern Methodist University and Oxford University and an MA and PhD from Harvard University. He arrived at Wesleyan in 1964 and taught in the College of Letters and History Department until his retirement in 2000.

“Dick was an intellectual force at Wesleyan for decades—a gentle and persistent force for creative, interdisciplinary work across the humanities and social sciences,” recalled President Michael Roth ’78. “A gifted teacher, his History and Prophecy seminar was already legendary when I was a student in the 1970s, and his work at the Center for the Humanities and at the journal History and Theory exemplified core values of Wesleyan’s mission: independence of mind and generosity of spirit. Dick’s interests were expansive, and his contributions profound.”

Longtime colleague and William Armstrong Professor of History and Professor of Letters, Emerita, Laurie Nussdorfer, remembered Vann as “a bold thinker who was always willing to take a fresh and critical look at the status quo, whether it was the 17th-century English monarchy or the required course for the history major. In modeling how to be a member of two very different teaching and collegial cultures, he demonstrated principle, flexibility, kindness, and respect for everyone whether or not he agreed with them.”

“Dick was generous with his time, always curious, and deeply invested in our students,” recalled Ethan Kleinberg, Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor and Professor of Letters. “I cherish the time we worked together on History and Theory where his adventurous spirit lives on to this day.”

Brian Fay, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus said, “I spent countless hours working closely with Dick Vann as an editor of History and Theory and in other capacities, and I never saw him be anything but a generous reader, a kind editor, and a gracious colleague. He was hilariously funny and wore his considerable learning so lightly, and used it so deftly, that it was a pleasure to be with him. My friend Steve Horst of the Philosophy Department wrote to say that Dick Vann was the kind of person who inspired young faculty to say, ‘Wow, that’s the kind of professor I want to be.’ I would add that for me he inspired me to think, ‘That’s the kind of human being I want to be.’”

Vann is survived by his wife of 67 years, Patricia Fenn Vann, his daughter, Elizabeth Reneau Vann, and an extended family currently numbering 28 relatives. The family is planning a memorial service in early May, and further information will be forthcoming nearer the time.