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Bruce Cole remembered for dedication to humanities



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IU mourns the death of Bruce Cole, former Professor Emeritus and IU Trustee. Cole died at the age of 79 on Jan. 8.  Indiana University Archives Buy Photos

Bruce Cole, distinguished professor emeritus and former IU trustee, died Jan. 8. He was 79.

His tenure at IU began in 1973 and ended nearly three decades later.

He was a beloved member of the IU community known for his work in Renaissance art and for his dedication to the humanities.

Cole went to college at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and wrote his dissertation on fourteenth-century painter Agnolo Gaddi.

He chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the largest American supporters of the humanities, for eight years.

Cole was confirmed into the position on Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

According to the NEH website, at the time of the swearing-in, Cole gave an address on the importance of the humanities in the wake of the attacks.

“Defending our homeland requires not only successful military campaigns; it also depends on citizens understanding their history, their institutions and their ideals,” he said. “The humanities show us what it means to be an American, and why America's ideals are worth fighting for.”

Cole was honored across the world in 2008, accepting the Presidential Citizens Medal from former president George W. Bush and being decorated Knight of the Grand Cross.

That same year, he also received the IU President’s Medal for Excellence from IU President Michael McRobbie, the highest honor an IU president can bestow. The medal is awarded for outstanding academic, artistic or professional accomplishments.

"All of us at Indiana University are deeply saddened by the passing of Bruce Cole, one of our University's most renowned scholars and public servants, who achieved great distinction both within his field of art history and in the broader arts community,” McRobbie said in a statement on Jan. 9.

Cole was remembered as gentle, cultured and soft-spoken by colleague Leslie Lenkowsky, IU professor emeritus in public affairs and philanthropy.

Lenkowsky remembers having dinner with Cole and his wife at a Japanese restaurant in Indianapolis while they both awaited confirmation into the Bush administration.

He said Cole wanted to create a “revival of understanding” of America so people could come to grips with tragedies like Sept. 11.

Cole told him the attacks created an urgency of educating youth in American history, amplifying his work with NEH in his Humanities magazine interview. 

Lenkowsky said despite Cole’s expertise in Renaissance art, one of his fondest memories with him was watching a movie called "Chuck" about a boxer.

“It really told a story,” Lenkowsky said of the film. “I think, ultimately, that was what Bruce looked for in works of art.”

IU Trustee Pat Shoulders also remembers him fondly.

“Bruce and I always had a pleasant time and a challenging time debating certain points,” Shoulders said. “We would engage in spirited conversation on certain issues, but I have no hesitancy in saying that he was always motivated by his sincere belief of what was best for the University.”

“I would simply say that Indiana University can be very proud to call Dr. Bruce Cole one of its own,” Shoulders said.

David Brenneman, director of the Eskenazi Museum of Art, remembers being hired to his current position by a committee chaired by Cole.

“I was impressed that he took such interest in me,” Brenneman said. 

He remembers getting lunch with Cole about every six months after taking the position at IU. 

The two lunched for the final time this past fall.

“He was just very interested,” Brenneman said of their last encounter. “He wanted to know that good things were happening for IU.”

Brenneman said Cole's death is a huge loss to the university.

“I’m glad to have known him the time that I did,” Brenneman said. “But I would have enjoyed more lunches.”

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