Home > Departmental History at UND > Felix Vondracek and History and the University of North Dakota

Felix Vondracek and History and the University of North Dakota

In honor of the University of North Dakota‘s 125th-iversary, I am serializing some short biographies of important members in the history of the Department of History

Felix Vondracek was one the Department of History’s most controversial figures and longest serving faculty members.  He earned the enmity of several of the important voices in the history of the Department, particularly Robert Wilkins and Elwyn Robinson, ensuring that his place in the annals of the Department was generally a negative one.  Despite his shortcomings as a colleague, Vondracek did see the department through a time of growth and can receive at least some credited for seeing the Department from the Era of Libby and Perkins to the modern day. 

With the death of Clarence Perkins in the winter 1946, the department, recently reunited after 20 years of being divided into departments of American and European history, rallied to ensure that his classes were taught in the spring semester. A replacement for his position as department head, although far less onerous post than in the modern, highly-bureaucratized, university, was nevertheless required. Dean Bek designated Felix Vondracek, the senior member of the department, as acting department head. Vondracek was known around campus for his photographic memory and booming voice, which on clear summer days could be heard across the quad. He had recently returned to the department from his wartime service, which comprised primarily of training cadets at the University. Libby had hired him in 1929 in the Department of American History although at the time he was struggling to complete his Ph.D at Columbia with a dissertation on the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia. He led a department composed of Robert Wilkins, Louis Geiger, and Elwyn Robinson.  All three held particularly negative views of Vondracek as both a scholar and a leader of the department. In later accounts they were confident that Dean Bek shared those views and resisted officially naming Vondracek Department Head.  Despite the reluctance of the previous dean and the reservations of the faculty, the department had no choice. The retirement of Libby and the death of Perkins had left the department at less then full strength with only four faculty members. Robinson’s frail health made him unsuitable and Geiger and Wilkins were newly arrived and lacked the Ph.D. This situation and the death of William Bek in 1948 led Bek’s replacement Bonner Witmer to elevate Vondracek to the position of department head.

Almost immediately Robinson, Wilkins, and Geiger had difficulty with Vondracek. Both Wilkins and Robinson saw Vondracek as easily offended, insecure, and absent during most of his term as department head.  They criticized his apparent lack of intellectual substance, his failure to provide strong administrative leadership in the department, and his regard for his position as department head as a means to gain a larger salary. As a typical example of Vondracek’s behavior, Wilkins and Robinson both complained that he used his position as department head to monopolize summer teaching in order to supplement his income despite the fact that salaries for junior faculty remained substantially below the national average even amidst post war prosperity.  Their criticism of Vondracek for this and other matters eventually required personal visits not only to Dean Witmer but also to President West and his successor Starcher.

The consistently vituperative critique of Vondracek by Robinson, Geiger, and others cast a long shadow over Vondracek’s term as department head. There criticisms tended to obscure some key developments in the department during that time which may give credit to Vondracek’s leadership. Perhaps the most damning of the criticisms leveled by Robinson is that Vondracek hindered the department’s growth from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s during which the university itself expanded markedly. While it is difficult to assess the intensity and commitment with which Vondracek acted, the annual reports of the department from the 1950s to the early 1960s nevertheless show that he regularly requested additional resources for the department including better offices, additional library resources, and even provisions for an archivist for the expanding Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection. The manuscript collection was a pet project of Robinson, Wilkins, and Geiger, none of whom got along well with Vondracek. Moreover, Robinson’s and Wilkins’s critique obscures the key role that Vondracek played in bringing to the university an ambitious, competent, and active group of young faculty members. At the death of Perkins, the department only registered three faculty members, down form the six members of during the days of Libby’s and Perkins’s split department. Vondracek worked to increase the number of faculty members steadily during his term as chair. Wilkins begrudgingly notes that Vondracek was either good or very lucky in attracting faculty members to the department, and may have been equally as instrumental in driving them out.  It should be noted, however, that one of the byproducts of hiring good and ambitious young faculty is that one is apt to lose some of them on account of their greater access to other opportunities.

By 1948, Vondracek had hired two Missourians, George Lemmer a fellow graduate student of Geiger’s at the University of Missouri, and Robert Kirkpatrick who held an M.A. from Washington University, bringing the faculty of the Department back to 5 members. Kirkpatrick earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and departed in 1950 to be replaced by John Parker. Parker was the first native North Dakotan to teach in the Department. He was a graduate student at the University of Michigan and met Felix Vondracek purely by chance at a meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in Madison, Wisconsin. According to Parker, he had introduced himself to Vondracek after seeing the University of North Dakota as his affiliation. Vondracek hired him quickly after that. While Parker’s training was in European History, he primarily taught U.S. Economic history which was a required course for students in the School of Commerce.

The faculty of the early 1950s, however, also proved difficult for Vondracek and the turnover in faculty fed a period of instability in the department. While his relationship with Robinson and Wilkins was cool at best, he did not get along at all with Lemmer, Geiger, and Parker. At one point, Vondracek famously told Lemmer and Geiger that President West saw them as “dead-wood”.  Moreover, he seems to have verbally attacked John Parker for reasons that remain obscure.  This increasingly hostile work environment took its tool on the physical health of Parker leading him to resign with an ulcer in 1952. He completed his Ph.D. in library science and served for almost 40 years as the James Ford Bell Library of rare books at the University of Minnesota. Lemmer soon left as well to take a position as a temporary position as a civilian historian with the Air Force. During this time he wrote a letter to Dean Witmer very critical of Felix Vondracek and this prompted President West to fire Lemmer.  Efforts by Robinson, Wilkins, and Dean Witmer to convince Lemmer to write a formal apology and return to the University were unsuccessful. At the same time as Lemmer’s and Parker’s departure, Louis Geiger accepted a position as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Helsinki, Finland and as a Ford Fellow at Harvard University and Stanford University. These departures, both tempora
ry and permanent marked a period of instability and change at both the University and the Department. John Harnsberger, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, replaced John Parker. Jerry DeWitt, a graduate student at Yale University, replaced Lemmer. Fred Winkler was invited to replace Geiger for his two years of leave. In 1960, Playford Thorson came to the University as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota having earned an M.A. from the University of New Mexico. He would serve for over three decades as the department’s expert in Scandinavian history. The new blood in the department initially calmed the turmoil incited by the conflicts between Lemmer, Parker, and Vondracek. The calm did not persist, however, as soon DeWitt and Harnsberger chaffed under Vondracek’s leadership.  The record for the early years of the 1960s and the end of the 1950s is poor, but it appears to have been a period of growing discontent with the leadership in the department as the early 1960s marked a significant watershed in departmental history.

Robinson, Geiger, and others complained to President Starcher, Dean Witmer, and ultimately the newly created Vice President of Academic Affairs (the predecessor to the position of Provost at the University) William Koenker about Vondracek’s lack of leadership in the department. While initially there was no response, eventually the departure of DeWitt, Harnsberger, Wilkins, and Geiger during the early 1960s drew administration’s attention to the department. Robinson opined that these departures in the context of the constant complaints regarding Vondracek’s leadership forced the administrations hand in 1962. President Starcher, however, had been inclining toward a policy of rotating department heads.  Several long serving department heads like Libby’s old friend George Wheeler, had resisted as these men typically held their positions for life, but over time nearly all of the old guard were replaced. The policy of Starcher, while immediately beneficial to an embattled department like history, was part of the gradual expansion of administrative power at the University largely at the expense of the faculty. Ousting long standing department heads and replacing them with rotating faculty limited the ability of faculty groups, like a group of powerful, longstanding, and conservative faculty called “the Wranglers”, to develop sustainable power bases and shifted some of the responsibility for continuity of policy to the administrative level. In the Department of History, a petition submitted to Starcher by Thorson, an emerging member of a younger, more liberal minded, and progressive group of faculty members called the “Young Turks”, and endorsed by five of the members of the department led to the ouster of Vondracek. The next year, Starcher tried to offer the department head to Thorson, who refused, and Robinson briefly assumed the post until his chronic health issues led him to resign after less than a year.  Glenn Smith, a newcomer to the department hired in 1962, followed him but briefly as chair.

Vondracek continued to teach in the Department for another decade, finally retiring in 1971 after serving 43 years in the Department of History.

Other Short Biographies of major figures in the Department of History at UND:

Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota
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  1. Vincent O'Reilly (1960)
    August 22, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    I studied Medieval History under Dr. Vondracek but until reading this had no idea of the nature of the turmoil that surrounded him… although I knew that there had been turmoil. He was certainly one of the more colorful professors at UND in the 1950s with a taste for mildly off color historical tidbits with which he would entertain us. Both during lectures and in after class discussions he would literally be in your face. Class with Dr. Vondracek was exciting and stimulating though I have always felt that his phenomenal memory for facts interfered with his looking very deeply into the whys of history. Of Dr. Geiger I remember little except an impression of his being all business. There may have been little love between Vondracek and Dr. Wilkins but I enjoyed and benefitted from both their classes, and from Dr. Vondracek developed a lifelong interest in Byzantine studies. Of Dr. Wilkins I would say that he was one of the most kindly and pleasant men I have ever met. If it is not inappropriate to say so of one’s mentor, I would call him friend. He would have fit nicely into the Prairie Home Companion show.

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