Professor of History
A Child of the Depression, Robert A. Huff was born on September 20, 1930 in Nashua, New Hampshire, the only child of Arthur Schuyler Huff and the former Eunice Blanchard. Huff’s father, too, was born in Nashua, himself the son of a master mechanic at the Rollins Engine Company, who moved to New England from Seneca Falls before the turn of the century.
After graduation from Nashua High School in 1948, Huff entered Boston University, majoring in history. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he also received the Allen Prize, and was awarded his B.A. in 1952, with distinction in history.
Though there already had been many educators who served as role models for Huff, it was not until graduate school that he met the teacher who was to exert the strongest influence and clearest direction, Professor Ruhl Bartlett of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Under Bartlett, Huff emulated his professor, an “unreconstructed Wilsonian” and became “a convert to the ideal of a benevolent America as a leader for world peace.” Huff says “It was not until the Nixon years that I came to develop a critical stance toward some of the actions and statements of our own government.”
After receiving his M.A. from the Fletcher School in 1953, Huff entered Navy O.C.S. in September of the same year, and served on active duty in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1953-57. Honorably discharged, Huff returned to New England, spending the next two years as a history teacher at the Hebron Academy in Maine. Once again, it was Ruhl Bartlett who pointed the way:
"When I left active duty, it was Professor Bartlett who encouraged me to try teaching. After I gave a positive report on my experience at Hebron, he encouraged me to return to graduate school to prepare for a career in college teaching."
And so, later in 1959, Dr. Huff entered the graduate program at the University of Rochester, and was awarded his Ph.D. in 1967, already having begun his teaching career at Hobart and William Smith in 1962, when he was hired as an instructor in history.
Promoted to assistant professor in 1967, Huff was named an associate professor in 1970, and in 1975, Beverley Causey, then chairman of the history department, presented the unanimous recommendation that Robert Huff be promoted to full professor, noting “his academic qualifications are superior, and as a teacher his performance has been outstanding”, and describing him as “without peer among our teachers.”
In his 30 year tenure at HWS, Robert A. Huff was also co-initiator of the Martin Luther King Scholarship Fund (1968), Clinical Professor for Social Studies (1971-73), a member of the Trustees Honors Committee (1972-73), a member of the Coordinate Colleges Policy Committee (1973), a member of both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians since 1962, recipient of the Faculty Prize for Distinguished Teaching (1976). Huff was also the first holder of the Donald R. Harter ’39 Professorship in the Humanities and the Social Science (1981-86), and recipient of the Faculty Community Service Prize (1988), which honored a faculty member that “exemplifies [the] qualities of sensitivity, courtesy, intelligence... willingness to assume and execute tasks that all of us with generosity, with the utmost discretion, distinction, and grace.”
The countless challenging and productive hours spent in improving the well-being of the community of Geneva enhanced but never overshadowed his primary purpose. First and foremost a teacher, Bob Huff exerted powerful, lasting influence upon many hundreds of women and men who were in his classrooms over 30 years, and one did not come to his classes unprepared. Content mattered most of all, but form, was by no means unimportant. Answers, especially those in writing, had to be clear and concise. Little wonder his most devoted students called him “Tough Huff.” One such pupil, Suzanne Stroble Kaback ’89, credits Huff as the teacher who taught her to write, noting “he wanted us to learn to think and write concisely” and thanking him for “caring about us as learners, knowing that not all of us would pursue a career in history, but that we would all pursue a life of thinking.”
Dr. Lee F. Seidel ’67, Director and Professor of Health Management and Policy at the University of New Hampshire, says Huff added wit and humor to the rigorous study of historical events and forces, as well as context and meaning”, and that Professor Huff “alone helped me see and appreciate the historian’s world view, and truly appreciate the benefits of a liberal education.”
Another former student is Nancy Bernkopf Tucker ’70, now herself a Professor of History at Georgetown University. She cherishes “the extraordinary importance of one teacher who did more than those around him to open the world of ideas.” And says that “often, when I am in front of a class and reaching for some way to excite my students, I think of Robert Huff and those days more than 30 years ago, when I was inspired, and how his words sent me in a new direction.”
Bob Skitol ’67 is a prominent antitrust attorney in Washington, DC. Describing himself as “an adoring former student,” Skitol feels that Professor Huff’s influence upon several generations of students was powerful and quite unique. “He bought American history alive, made it compelling and important to the lives of his students” says Skitol, who also noted of Huff “as a teacher and provocateur, he had no equal.”
Residing still on South Main Street, every bit as active in community service as ever, Bob Huff has succumbed finally to the activity which has beckoned since his adolescence in Nashua: gardening. “It has been one of the great joys of my retirement years to be able, at last, to indulge this passion so long deferred” says Huff.
There is now more time, too, for reading and traveling, and for visits to his children and stepchildren. Away from Geneva only for the coldest of the winter months, Bob and his wife, Jane Donegan, flee to Anastasia Island in Florida... but they are back every year in early April to till the soil and resume the many close connections with Geneva and the Colleges.
In a citation for the 1976 Faculty Prize for Distinguished Teaching, the Provost asserted that Bob Huff:
... does all kinds of teaching well. He brings out the best in students and reaches them at all levels without ever condescending or lowering his standards. I have witnessed his teaching, and the atmosphere he he generates in the classroom is electric. I have never seen anyone teach so well. Bob Huff is simply the single best teacher we have on campus.