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Historian to be first Dexter Perkins Professor

March 12, 2014
group photoPictured from left to right: Provost Peter Lennie, Dean Joanna Olmsted, Francis R. Grebe ’54, Professor Joan Shelley Rubin and President Joel Seligman

Joan Shelley Rubin, a professor of American cultural history, is the inaugural holder of the Dexter Perkins Professorship in History at the University of Rochester. The endowed position was established through gifts from Robert Kirkwood ’56 (PhD), Francis Grebe ’54, and other donors in honor of the late Dexter Perkins, a prominent American diplomatic historian. Rubin’s installation took place on Thursday, March 6.

“The generosity of Robert Kirkwood and Francis Grebe is greatly appreciated,” said University President Joel Seligman. “They have joined together to create an enduring tribute—one that will help to inspire new scholars for generations to come.”

“I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the Perkins chair than Joan Rubin,” added Matthew Lenoe, chair of the history department. “Her remarkable record of scholarship, teaching, and professional leadership epitomizes the legacy of Dexter Perkins, who was a beloved teacher, the one-time president of the American Historical Association, and founder of Rochester’s graduate program in history.”

Joan Shelley Rubin

Rubin ranks among the nation’s most highly regarded scholars of American culture, an area of research that has blossomed in recent decades. She is the author and editor of several critically acclaimed books and essay collections, including the recent Cultural Considerations (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), which explores how literary critics and musicians influenced public culture after World War II.

Her second book, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (UNC Press, 1992) is recognized as a “must-read” in American cultural studies, notes Lenoe. The book focuses on the efforts of intellectuals to make “high culture” accessible to the middle class through such vehicles as “The Book of the Month” club, and was praised by New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for allowing readers to “see more clearly why American book culture, for better and for worse, is what it is today.”

Rubin’s cultural history, Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Harvard University Press, 2007), was lauded by one reviewer as “a major contribution to 20th American cultural history.” Another critic in the New York Times Sunday Book Review wrote that through the book Rubin “dignifies … the comfort, pleasure and emotional richness readers found in popular poetry.”

Rubin also is co-editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History (Oxford University Press, 2013) and has been published widely in peer-reviewed journals, including American Quarterly and the Journal of American History. She has served on the editorial boards of many of those same journals, and on the boards of the New York Council for the Humanities and the Organization of American Historians. Among her numerous awards and fellowships, she was elected to the Society of American Historians, a selective group of 250 professional historians who are noted for their literary distinction.

Rubin joined the Rochester faculty in 1995 and has served on the steering committees of the Susan B. Anthony Institute, the Faculty Senate and the Digital Humanities working group, among others. In the history department, she was director of undergraduate studies and is currently director of graduate studies, as well as director of the American studies program, which she helped to launch in 2011.

A Rochester native, Rubin received her bachelor’s degree in American history and literature from Harvard University in 1969 and a doctorate in American studies from Yale University in 1974.

Robert Kirkwood ’56 (PhD)

A graduate of Rutgers University, Robert Kirkwood met his wife, Mary (Corky) Moore Kirkwood ’48 (now deceased), in one of Professor Perkins’ classes during his doctoral studies at Rochester. Kirkwood began his academic career as a professor at Clarkson College from 1950 to 1959 and subsequently held several administrative positions in higher education throughout his career, including dean of Washington College in Maryland. He retired in 1987 after serving 15 years as executive director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Kirkwood serves on the University’s History Alumni Advisory Committee and lives in Media, Pa.

Kirkwood said he chose to endow this position because Dexter Perkins believed that “the greatest challenge confronting historians is the challenge of the classroom.” Through the professorship, Kirkwood hopes to honor Perkins’ commitment to teaching and his conviction that mentoring the next generation of educators should rank among our highest priorities.

Francis R. Grebe ’54

After graduating with honors from the University of Rochester in 1954, Francis Grebe earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. For more than 50 years, he devoted his career to estate and financial planning with major trust companies in Chicago, Rochester, New York City, and Philadelphia. He retired from his position as senior vice president of Pennsylvania Trust in 2009 and is currently a fiduciary consultant for the same company.

“My gift was motivated specifically by Bob Kirkwood and his enthusiastic regard for Dexter Perkins, who I came to know later in life,” said Grebe. “Making the gift was easy to do because I have always cared for the University, which had done so much for me. Not only did I receive financial aid as a student, but every day of those four years was personally rewarding. So this is a small payback with much gratitude.”

In addition to his support for this professorship, Grebe is a member of the George Eastman Circle, the University’s leadership annual giving society. He lives in Devon, Pa., where he serves on several boards, including the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the Associated Services for the Blind, and the Guthrie Healthcare System, among others.

Dexter Perkins

A recognized authority on the Monroe Doctrine, Perkins was the first scholar to hold Cambridge University’s Chair of American History and Institutions and served as the official U.S. historian at the 1945 San Francisco Security Conference that preceded the organization of the United Nations.

At Rochester, Perkins helped found the University’s graduate program in history in 1947 and chaired the Department of History for 29 years. After his retirement from the University in 1953, he was named the John L. Senior Professor of American Civilization at Cornell University. Respected as well for his community involvement, Perkins served as historian of the city of Rochester from 1936 to 1948 and was the first president of the Rochester Association for the United Nations. He died in 1984 at the age of 94.

The Perkins Professorship was made possible by lead gifts from Kirkwood and Grebe, with additional support from more than 50 alumni and friends of the University who also were eager to recognize Perkins. The gifts support The Meliora Challenge: The Campaign for the University of Rochester, a University-wide fundraising campaign that was launched in October 2011 and runs through June 30, 2016 (


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