Memorial Minute: Benjamin G. Kohl
October 26, 1938 - June 10, 2010
"Informed and passionate." What a perfect way to sum up Ben Kohl as scholar and teacher, as his dear friend Frank Bergon did in remarks at Ben's memorial in Chestertown, Maryland, in August 2010, a few months after Ben's death. From his earliest days at Vassar to his early retirement in 1998 Ben lived those qualities fully, in his teaching, his scholarship, and his service. Retirement did not alter this in the least; his endless curiosity and passion for knowledge drove him to new scholarly projects, and to deeper involvement in his new community of Betterton, on Maryland's Eastern Shore where he lived the last ten years of his life.
Ben came to Vassar in 1966 after brief teaching stints at the University of Delaware and Franklin and Marshall College. Ben loved Vassar College and delighted in being in the thick of things. Almost immediately he threw himself into college service--as a House Fellow in his early years at the college, and as a member of numerous committees including the Library Committee, CCP, FPCC, FASC, and the Search Committee that brought History major Nancy Schrom Dye '69 as Dean of the Faculty in 1988. He served as History Department chair for a total of seven years, and his last term in particular saw the beginning of a period of profound change and growth in the department, as older colleagues retired and young, dynamic scholars were recruited to fill those slots.
As his senior History colleagues remarked in recommending him for promotion to full professor in 1980, "Ben is a born scholar, whose erudition, wide-ranging curiosity, critical intelligence, and love of learning have enriched his teaching, his publications, and the lives of his colleagues." Those of us in the generation that followed would echo these sentiments. An authority on Renaissance Italy, Ben wrote extensively on fourteenth-century Padua and Venice. His publications include a number of edited volumes --The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society, with Ronald G. Witt (1978); Major Problems in the History of the Italian Renaissance, with his former student Alison Smith '77 (1995); and On Witchcraft, An abridged translation of Johann Weyer's De praestigiis daemonum, with H. C. Erik Midelfort (1998). By far his most significant publication was the book he unabashedly described as his magnum opus--Padua under the Carrera, 1318-1405, published in 1998 by the Johns Hopkins University Press, and representing a lifetime of extraordinary archival research. Ben was deeply committed to making sources available to scholars; in that vein, he became an early advocate of digital publishing of reference works, and published at least two collections of great value to scholars of the Italian Renaissance--the CD-ROM Records of the Venetian Senate on Disk, 1335-1400 (2001), and The Rulers of Venice, 1332-1524, the latter database now included among the Renaissance Society of America's on-line resources. His distinction as a scholar was noted early on, when in 1970, still a Vassar assistant professor, he won the Rome Prize and [cap.? fellowship] in post-classical studies at the American Academy in Rome. In 1978 he received a Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation Grant for his work on Padua under the Carrara, and in 1980 was elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London. Vassar recognized his talents as well when, in 1993, he was named the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities; after his early retirement in 1998 he was honored with a long-term Andrew W. Mellon Emeritus Fellowship in the Humanities.
Ben's research very much informed his classroom teaching. In one early review the department called specific attention to high enrollments in Ben's medieval and Renaissance courses, finding them quite remarkable in an era when students were thought to increasingly shy away from "early" European history. Ben did not teach "narrowly"; his reach included a course team-taught with Karen Robertson on "Women in Renaissance Society" and, in that same semester and perhaps more surprising to those unaware of Ben's interest in a sport, "Reading the Fights: Boxing and American Values" with Frank Bergon. That course, recently featured in the Vassar Quarterly (Winter 2012), remains to this day the only Vassar course written up in both The New York Times and Ring Magazine, and the life fitness course on boxing established in conjunction with the course continues to be among the most popular of Vassar's fitness courses. In its second iteration, in 1996, "Reading the Fights" was accompanied by an exhibit at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, "American Fighters: A Century of Boxing in Art," curated by Ben and Frank, and a symposium "The Art of Boxing" that brought together former heavy-weight champion Floyd Patterson, former light-heavyweight champion José Torres, three art photographers, and novelist Joyce Carol Oates for a conversation on "The Art of Boxing." Such was the range of Ben's intellectual interests! The standard of excellence and innovation in the classroom that Ben established continues to inspire the Department to this day.
Those fortunate to have been Ben's colleagues remember him as a warm and generous presence, deeply committed to Vassar and no less deeply committed to the History Department. He mentored many of us in the ways of the college, impressing upon us the importance of faculty governance. He was a driving force in establishing Vassar's Medieval and Renaissance program--indeed, one former colleague remembers that a good part of that program's early budget came from the "Kohl reserves"! He taught courses in the Italian department (which he briefly chaired), and in the Women's Studies, American Culture, and College Course programs. On a more personal note, many were the evenings when Ben and Judy opened their home for small dinner parties, offering good food, drink, and conversation, and ending, quite frequently, with one last grappa before the guests departed. A more convivial host there could not be! Ben loved life and lived it fully, whether in Poughkeepsie, in Padua, or in his Eastern Short retreat in Maryland. He modeled a good life for his colleagues and friends.
Ben officially retired from Vassar in 2001, returning to the area near where he was born and raised. Taking up residence in Betterton, MD, he maintained an active research agenda that several times took him back to his beloved Italy, his last trip only months before his death. This period of his scholarly life saw him turning his attention more specifically to Venetian history, with the goal a monograph on The Governance of Late Medieval Venice; while he presented a number of papers out of this project, the monograph remained incomplete at his death. In retirement he also immersed himself in his local community, serving on the board of the Historical Society of Kent County, as secretary of the Town of Betterton Planning Commission, with the Betterton Community Development Corporation, and driving for Food Link, a hunger relief and food rescue organization. He also became deeply involved in the life of Washington College, a small liberal arts college in Chestertown, MD, serving on the Board of Visitors and Governors of the College and taking a special interest in the College's Miller Library. Indeed, his last published article was an account, with Latin text and translation, of the first commencement address at Washington College, in 1783. In retirement he also founded the Hedgelawn Foundation, created to support the visual and performing arts and education and historical preservation on the Delmarva Peninsula and in Venice, Italy.
Ben visited Vassar frequently even after relocating to Betterton, participating as Washington College's representative at Cappy's inaugural in October 2006 and periodically conducting research in Vassar's Special Collections. He stopped by Swift to chat during his last visit to Vassar, in mid-November 2009. He was thinner, a result of his recent bout with pancreatic cancer, but upbeat and animated--a man who seemed genuinely reborn, and grateful for the second chance. His delight in Italy was undimmed; he shared plans for his upcoming trip to Venice to offer a paper, and for a return to the archive later in the winter for research. He made both those trips. Sadly, they were his last. In spring 2010 Ben suffered a recurrence of cancer, and died at his home in Betterton on June 10 of that year. He is survived by his wife Judy, children Benjamin G. Kohl Jr. (Ben-G) and Laura Kohl Ball, and granddaughter Haley Lee Carpenter Ball. Ben is, as well, survived by scores of good friends and colleagues who knew him well, and miss him immensely.