Described as an “irrepressible force” by a former colleague, Robert G. Hartje, professor emeritus of history, passed away April 21, 2020, at the age of 97.
Born Aug. 8, 1922, he served as a paratrooper with the Army Air Corps during World War II and held bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Vanderbilt University. An award-winning professor and leading authority on how to celebrate the American Bicentennial, he taught at Wittenberg from 1956 until his retirement in 1988. During his tenure, he also served as chair of the department of history and director of American Studies.
His love of American history found its focus in the South, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War. From 1970-1971, he served as Bicentennial project director for the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville, Tennessee, during which he wrote Bicentennial USA: Pathways to Celebration, which offered more than 400 ideas for how communities could celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. This experience led him to serve as a consultant to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.
A beloved faculty member, Hartje was recognized several times for teaching excellence. In 1964, he received the Harbison Award from the Danforth Foundation, and in 1967, he was presented with the Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award. In nominating him, students commented that “he makes history intensely interesting and relevant to the present,” and “he has a deep personal interest in each of his students.”
Jim Huffman, professor emeritus of history, echoed those sentiments: “Bob was a force: irrepressible, both in and out of the classroom. I can still see him walking to class carrying half a dozen dog-eared books, ready to read his favorite excerpts from each one. I can hear the stories he loved to tell—in the hallway, in talks, over meals. It was no wonder that students loved him because he loved them.
“I remember telling him one day about some student’s writing error that I thought was amusing,” Huffman continued. “[Bob] responded: ‘Yes, you never know whether to correct students or to encourage their creativity.’ At the time, I thought he was being too soft on students. But over time I came to see what a strength it was; he appreciated their individuality; he gave them the benefit of the doubt; and so many of them blossomed as a result.”
Hartje and his wife, the late Martha Feldkircher Hartje ’44, along with other family, friends, and colleagues, established The Robert and Martha Hartje Endowed History Fund, which funds both an award given annually to a senior history major with an interest in biographical and narrative history and an award for students who seek to study abroad.
The fund also established the Annual Robert G. Hartje Lecture in History. Hartje himself presented the inaugural lecture entitled “Storytelling and History: Making Sense of the Civil War from a Fanciful Mind Set” in 2006. More than 200 alumni, students, faculty, and friends attended, with Joe O’Connor, professor emeritus of history, introducing his former colleague as “a magnetic figure on this campus” who “meant more to more students inside the classroom and outside, than any other Wittenberg faculty member I have ever known.”
At his 90th birthday party on campus, approximately 300 people – including President Emeritus William A. Kinnison, former students, and all living former history department faculty – celebrated with him.
In retirement, Hartje remained dedicated to the life of the mind and continued to teach and lecture. His Homecoming weekend presentations were particularly popular among alumni. A lifelong poet whose work appeared in the Wittenberg Review of Literature and Art, he published his first book of poetry, Poems Across the Seasons (Four Directions Press), last year at the age of 96.
His professional contributions also included the book Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General (Vanderbilt UP, 1967), numerous articles and book reviews in professional journals such as The Historian, and professional papers delivered at meetings of various professional history associations. He was a past president of the Ohio Academy of History, which awarded him the Distinguished Service Award in 1984, and a past president of the Warder Libraries Board of Trustees.
Contributions in Dr. Hartje’s memory can be made to The Robert and Martha Hartje Endowed History Fund.