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Longtime Williams Prof. And Political Scientist James MacGregor Burns Dies At 95

Stewart Burns

Historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns has died at the age of 95.

The longtime Williams College professor died Tuesday morning at his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts. An author of more than 20 books, he is best known for his 1971 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of FDR titled Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.  His son Stewart Burnsalso became a Williams professor and now teaches at the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati.

“Always felt that a contentious conversation about politics was good thing to have, not something to avoid,” Stewart Burns said. “So we had a lot of contentious conversations about politics that would go back to the Vietnam War and over many years since.”

Born in Melrose, Mass., in 1918, Burns grew up in Burlington, Mass. before receiving an undergraduate degree from Williams College, where he also edited the school newspaper. Burns served as a combat historian during World War II in the Pacific theater, according to his son.

“Fighting with one hand and then writing the history with the other,” said Burns with a chuckle.

Burns ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for the 1st Congressional District of Massachusetts in 1958. WAMC’s political observer Alan Chartock says although Burns lost to popular Congressman Silvio Conte, the political action was meaningful.

“I loved it,” Chartock said. “I said to myself you know here’s a guy who teaches, but who also wants to show people that it can be practiced on a very community level. That’s what he did. He wasn’t afraid to lose and to me that was a sign of real decency. You couldn’t dislike him.”

Susan Dunn met the man she calls Jim when she came to Williams College as a professor in 1973. The two became a couple in 1992 and would go on to write two books together, which Dunn says was easy because Burns was a perfect gentleman on top of being a scholar.

“I must say that Jim was also my teacher and my mentor,” Dunn said. “He was so smart and insightful about American politics that I had no basis for disagreeing with him. Life with Jim was an ongoing seminar. Dinner parties at our house were also seminars. He’d have several themes subjects and themes lined up for the conversation and we’d go around the table and ask people what they thought. Most people really adored that because the conversation was really sustentative and serious. Some people felt it was a little too heavy and they would have preferred more meaningless vacuous chit-chat.”

Serving as a professor of political science at Williams for nearly four decades, Burns also wrote about and studied the role of leadership in politics, including coining the term “transformational leadership,” which Dunn defines.

“It is empowering the followers,” Dunn said. “It’s not just the question of the leader himself, but the interaction between the leader and the followers and that they both empower one another.”

Dunn says Burns also pushed for political reforms, including viewing the Constitution as a living, breathing document.

“Jim felt that it was no longer working very well,” she said. “Perhaps part of the paralysis that we see in Washington now, the deadlock that we see in Washington now, Jim had predicted.”

Stewart Burns says the impact of his father’s “heart of gold” stretches well beyond the world of academia.

“I remember him saying something very simple, but that’s stayed with me ever since which was…think of others,” said Burns.

James MacGregor Burns is survived by Dunn and his ex-wife Janet Thompson Keep and their three surviving children. A family burial will be held soon. A public memorial service at Thompson Chapel at Williams College is scheduled for September.

Click here for WAMC's story on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's death featuring Stewart Burns recalling his father's experiences that day.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org