Ernest P. Muller, professor emeritus of history, dies at 89

Ernest P. Muller, professor emeritus of history and a member of the Bates faculty from 1950 to 1988, died on Tuesday, April 1, 2008. He was 89.

During Reunion Weekend 1988, Ernest P. Muller, having just retired after 38 years on the Bates College faculty, talks with an alumnus. Photograph by David Wilkinson.

  • A memorial service for Professor Emeritus of History Ernest P. Muller will be held Saturday, April 26, 2008, at 3 p.m. in the Bates College Chapel. A reception will follow in Frank’s Lounge at 280 College Street.
  • He is survived by his wife, Peg, of 8 Abbott St., Lewiston, Maine 04240; children Ellen Muller Leonard ’71 and Peter G. Muller; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
  • Read a story from the Summer 1988 issue of Bates Magazine on Ernest Muller.

To paraphrase Emerson, today’s Bates history department is Ernest Muller’s lengthened shadow, in the sense of “the seriousness with which teaching is taken,” said Michael Jones, professor of history and the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, in 2007.

Devotion to teaching is a Bates truism, noted Jones, but “when you have an individual like Ernie Muller to watch or model yourself after, teaching becomes fundamental to your life. Everything else flows from that,” said Jones.

Muller’s influence is seen in the numbers. Three of the nine members of the 2007–08 history department were appointed during Muller’s active tenure or shortly thereafter. Two other longtime history faculty, Steve Hochstadt and Liz Tobin, now at Illinois College, were appointed under Muller in 1979, and that was something new for Bates: the first husband-and-wife joint appointment to the faculty.

Before the department expanded under President T. Hedley Reynolds in the 1970s and 1980s, Muller carried a heavy teaching and advising load. In his 1986 report of professional activities, he noted that he advised “nine seniors, seven juniors, 12 sophomores and 13 freshmen — ca. 3 percent of the student body.” When Muller retired in 1988, recalls Professor of History Margaret Creighton, “it took three people to replace him: two 20th-century Americanists and one Latin Americanist.”

As the department grew, Muller fostered a spirit of colleagiality, not competition.

“From my first day, Ernie treated me as his professional colleague, as a respected, full member of the department,” said Professor of History Dennis Grafflin, appointed in 1981. In turn, Grafflin has extended that courtesy to younger colleagues. “I know how much it meant to me, having previously taught in situations where I was endlessly reminded of how junior and probationary my status was.”

Department chair for many years, Muller taught courses on Latin America and American history, including 20th-century America, America’s “Gilded Age” of 1870–1900 and American diplomacy. His research focus was on Jacksonian politics, specifically Maine’s response to the so-called Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, in which the Southern state tried to nullify a federal tarrif in 1832.

Following Muller’s 1988 retirement, he and his wife, Peg, continued to live near campus on Abbott Street. With care, they nurtured their old faculty friendships and cultivated new ones with younger professors just joining the history department.

Born on April 9, 1918, Muller in his later years would get to know Bates professors who were born in the 1970s. Acknowledging this multigenerational span was important to Bates historians; for them, Muller’s presence personified the academic notion of living memory.

Each June, Ernest Muller attended the Alumni Parade during Reunion Weekend to greet former students. Here, a member of the Class of 1963 reaches out to Muller as Peg Muller (center) and President Elaine Tuttle Hansen (left) look on. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

“Historians consider that ‘living memory’ lasts up to three generations,” Jones explained in 2007. In recent years, the department’s social gatherings were populated thusly: by Muller, who grew up during the Great Depression; by the Baby Boom–era historians whom he hired and who replaced him; and by younger faculty born a full generation later. “Our department has a living memory and a social memory,” said Jones. “It’s a strong human quality.”

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Muller received a B.A. from Ursinus and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. Muller was a Navy pilot during World War II, retiring as a lieutenant commander with service in the Pacific, including Australia and New Guinea.

View Comments