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Boston University Faculty Members Remembered

Robert Bruce (GRS’47,’53)
Age 84, College of Arts and Sciences professor emeritus of history, on January 15

Bruce, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of American science, enjoyed a long and illustrious career, from graduate school to retirement, at Boston University.

“This was his home base,” says Saul Engelbourg, a former colleague and fellow professor emeritus of history. “He was a top-flight historian before he won the Pulitzer and after he won it. He was, and remained, a BU product.”

Bruce never intended to become BU’s leading historian — or to be a historian at all. He enrolled at MIT to study mechanical engineering. He joined the army in 1943 and served as a combat engineer during World War II while completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of New Hampshire. In 1946, he arrived at BU “as a graduate engineer to whom the G.I. Bill had given an opportunity to sample alternatives,” he told BU’s Arts and Sciences newsletter in 1987.

One of those alternatives was history, which he studied under the late Warren Ault (HON.’60), the founder of BU’s history department and a favorite professor among students. “Professor Ault hooked me for life,” Bruce wrote. He earned a master’s degree in history in 1947 and a doctorate in 1953.

“You might say we converted him,” Ault recalled later.

After graduate school, Bruce spent a year as a research assistant under Lincoln biographer Benjamin P. Thomas. In 1955 he returned to the University as an instructor in history. Over the next ten years he steadily climbed the academic ladder to full professorship. He published his first major book, Lincoln and the Tools of War, in 1956.

The book showed Bruce’s promise as a historian and helped earn him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1957.

In the midst of his prodigious writing career, Bruce taught a variety of classes, from 350-student introductory courses to small graduate seminars.

“Warren Ault said that hiring Bob was the best day’s work he ever did,” Engelbourg says. “He didn’t just write — he could function effectively in the classroom and was as good as they came.”

In 1973, his biography of former BU professor Alexander Graham Bell, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude, cemented his reputation in what would become his specialty, the history of American science. The book was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.

Bruce turned next to the period of American history that most inspired him: the Civil War era. As a child, he had loved nineteenth-century writers like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, as well as family stories of his great-grandfather, who had fought in the Civil War, he told the Boston Globe in 1988.

The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876, published in 1987, is a sprawling account of the early development of a distinctly American brand of scientific thought and practice. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Twenty years later, the book is still considered to be the standard survey of mid-nineteenth-century American science, according to Jon Roberts, a CAS professor of history, who teaches the history of American science.

“He was especially interested in placing American scientific development within its cultural, intellectual, and institutional context,” Roberts says.

Bruce officially retired in 1984 but continued to teach for five years. Katie Koch

Alberto De Lacerda
Age 78, University Professors Program professor emeritus of poetics and comparative literature, on August 27

Lacerda, one of the most celebrated Portuguese poets of the twentieth century, nurtured many aspiring writers in his twenty-four years at BU.

“He was an intense and, perhaps, even tempestuous teacher who demanded a lot of his students,” says Rosanna Warren, BU’s Emma Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities and herself a prize-winning poet. “But I have a feeling that for some of his more literary students, like [Pulitzer Prize winner] Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), he was a tremendous resource.”

Born in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, Lacerda left home at eighteen to study at the British and French Institutes in Lisbon. His reputation as a promising poet preceded him even then, and he published his first collection, 77 Poemas, in 1951, at age twenty-three. That year, he moved to London to work for the BBC Portuguese news service.

Lacerda’s poetry quickly won over the London literary set. Edith Sitwell is said to have called Lacerda one of the most cultivated people she knew. But while he remained a poet’s poet in the English-speaking world, Lacerda gained a widespread following in his native land. His twelve volumes of poetry were eventually translated into several languages — sometimes by Lacerda himself — but he always wrote in Portuguese.

After leaving London, Lacerda came to America seeking better fortunes in academia. He was a visiting professor of romance languages at the University of Texas at Austin from 1967 to 1970.

There he met future BU President John Silber (Hon.’95), who was then the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UT.

When Silber left to lead BU in 1971, Lacerda wasn’t far behind. He began teaching in the BU department of modern foreign languages and literatures in 1972. He remained close to Silber and several other UT professors who came to the East Coast, known collectively as “Austin in Boston.”

Lacerda taught a variety of courses in Portuguese language, culture, and literature. He became a University Professor in 1983.

“His best years as a teacher came after he joined the University Professors,” says Professor Emeritus Rodolfo Cardona, Lacerda’s former UT colleague and then the director of the University Professors Program. “He was able to teach a greater variety of courses dealing with comparative literature, and he had many students totally devoted to him.”

Lacerda retired from BU in 1996 and eventually returned to London. He published his last volume of poetry in 2001, but continued to write until his death.

“Writing, for Alberto, was not part-time, it was full-time,” Warren says. “His whole life was organized around the art. Alberto could give his students who sought to be writers a model of a very uncompromising life with art at the center.” KK

Watch a memorial reading held in honor of Alberto de Lacerda, the late University Professors Program emeritus professor of poetics and comparative literature

Harold Tovish
Age 86, sculptor and College of Fine Arts professor emeritus of art, on January 4

Tovish studied art at Columbia University from 1939 until 1943 and in Paris from 1949 to 1951. He served in the army during World War II and then returned to New York, where abstract expressionists dominated the art world. Although he shared their existential view, figural work like his was “often subtly banned from vanguard exhibitions,” as John Stomberg (GRS’90,’99) wrote in Bostonia in 2002.

Nevertheless, his career took off; he won grants and was included in major exhibitions. After living in Europe for three years, he and his wife, sculptor Marianna Pineda, moved to Boston. He taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, at MIT, and then at CFA from 1971 until he retired in 1983.

Through their fifty-one-year marriage, he and Pineda worked in their studios, independently but together, until she died in 1997. His work was shown at major U.S. museums, among them the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Chicago Art Institute, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum.

“His sculpture exemplifies the humanist expressionism of the work of his [BU] colleagues,” wrote Stomberg, then director of the BU Art Gallery. “He had a major impact on generations of artists.” NJM

Ivan Gold
Hailed for honesty, humor

In 1953, Columbia undergraduate Ivan Gold published the short story “Change of Air.” It “stayed in my memory as one of the most moving stories I had ever read,” the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote ten years later, “and I wondered how the young author would go on from that remarkable accomplishment.” Trilling was reviewing, with admiration, Gold’s first book, Nickel Miseries, a collection of short stories he said “give promise of an even further development that will make Mr. Gold one of the commanding writers of his time.”  

Gold, who taught creative writing in the Arts and Sciences English department and in Metropolitan College, died on December 23. He was seventy-five.

A more telling predictor than Nickel Miseries, Gold’s first novel was published in 1969. The Library Journal called Sick Friends “one of the best and most entertaining fictional portraits of a man entire.” Like many first-novel protagonists, heavy-drinking young writer Jason Sams seemed very like his creator.

Sams and Gold were twenty-one years older when the next book, Sams in a Dry Season, appeared. Set in 1976, drinking has overwhelmed Sams’s professional and personal life. He visits his parents in New York, returns to Boston, joins Alcoholics Anonymous (as Gold did the same year), and resumes writing.

A chorus of reviewers welcomed Gold’s return and hailed Sams for its insight, uncompromising honesty, and comic vision. Philip Roth described it as “a brave, open book, harsh, dogged and relentless, a confession burning through the contours of a novel.” 

Boston University was an important part of Gold’s own long, dry season and a happy observer of his triumphant return. A New Yorker by birth, inclination, and writer’s voice, he moved, with his wife, Vera, to Boston in 1974 to teach in the Creative Writing Program, and he taught writing and an occasional modern novel course at MET until the fall 2007 semester ended. A vital part of Boston’s community of writers — he helped found the Writers’ Room of Boston, which provides affordable workspace to writers — he asked distinguished friends to teach his last few classes and graded papers in his hospital bed.    

Last year he completed the novel Out of a Clear Blue Sky, which his childhood friend Charles Marowitz, a theater critic, director, and playwright, described as “delving remorselessly into the death of his parents, which occurred in quick succession, and his own gradual debilitation, describing in finite detail and with surgical clarity the parts of his metabolism that were failing him, the key medical terms employed to chronicle their regression.” His work remained tough and clear-sighted. “His body had become his overriding theme and he its faithful narrator.” NJM

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