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IU professor, renowned scholar cared deeply for students


Robert Ferrell, a former IU professor and leading historian on American diplomacy, died at 97 at a nursing home in Chelsea, Michigan, earlier this month. IU Archives, P0035420 Buy Photos

Robert Ferrell, a former IU professor and leading historian on American diplomacy, died at 97 at a nursing home in Chelsea, Michigan, earlier this month. 

Ferrell was a formal man who treated his colleagues, students and work with utmost care. 

He would start working at home around 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. Soon afterwards he would arrive at his Ballantine Hall office, which was filled with so many books, visitors had to walk in zig-zags before reaching him at his desk in the back. He preferred his electronic typewriter and four-by-six index cards to computers, which he lamented for the “dumbing down of academia and writing,” his daughter, Carolyn Ferrell, said. 

Ferrell wrote or edited more than 60 books on American diplomacy, war and presidents throughout his career, according to a New York Times article.  

Ferrell played the piano and organ, and enrolled in Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1946 to study music. Enlisting and serving in WWII motivated him to pursue studies in history. 

He returned from the war to earn a master's degree and Ph.D. in history from Yale University in 1948 and 1951. 

After one year of teaching at Michigan State University, Ferrell came to IU as an assistant professor of history in 1953. By the time he retired more than thirty years later, he had published more than twenty books and was a distinguished professor. 

Ferrell spent much time at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, for his research, where he was known for discovering previously unseen writings. In 1983, he discovered 1,300 letters from former president Harry Truman to his wife, Bess, while doing research for another Truman book. 

The documents served as the basis for one of Ferrell’s best sellers, “Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959.” 

Ferrell’s work earned him deep respect across the diplomatic field. He was interviewed on C-Span, Good Morning America, CBS Morning News and radio stations across the country, according to a 1997 IU press release. His work has been written about in the New York Times, Herald-Times and Indianapolis Star, among other publications.

Ferrell knew the authors of all the books he assigned to his students, and had strong opinions on every one, Nick Cullather, a former student said.

“It made you feel like this was a community you were entering,” Cullather said. “These books were really part of a big conversation, that Ferrell was at the center of.”

Carolyn said he spent hours talking to his students on the telephone and in person, guiding them on their writings, professional decisions and personal lives. He even advised people who were not his students but sought his help. 

Denise Hyble, another of Ferrell’s students, can still remember sitting in his office, watching him circling, crossing and writing questions all over her papers.

“God, I felt inspired,” Hyble said. “No one had really required that I write well until I met Professor Ferrell.”

Hyble wasn’t a history major -- she didn’t even like the subject, but she continued to take Ferrell’s independent readings classes solely to work with him. He always wore a sport coat and tie for lectures. 

Ferrell read the New York Times every day for almost 75 years, and remembered everything he read, Carolyn said. 

When his wife, Lila Ferrell, died suddenly in 2002, he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be with his daughter and his two grandchildren. He brought seven or eight thousand books with him, a paring from his collection of ten thousand. 

By that point he had gone blind in one eye and had a worsening cataract in the other. Not to be deterred, he used a strong magnifying glass to help him read, and continued to publish. 

But he was not as busy as before, which gave him time to take his two granddaughters, 9 and 12 years old, out for lunch every day until they began school. 

A stroke Ferrell had in 2015 stripped him of his most beloved act: writing. 

“He became quite frustrated in his abilities,” Carolyn said. “It was quite hard for him.”

Carolyn paid for people to read to him five times a week, so he could still have intellectual stimulation.

He was constantly asking his granddaughters questions, Carolyn said, and was curious to know their opinions. She said the girls will likely remember Ferrell as a kind, smart man who always wanted to share dessert with them. 

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