Remembering Bob Fallaw
CHESTERTOWN, MD—Former colleagues and students gathered in Hynson Lounge Sunday, January 19, to celebrate the life of Professor Emeritus Robert “Bob” Fallaw, a beloved teacher of American history at Washington College known as a consummate storyteller, intellectual powerhouse and positive life force. Some 100 people joined Fallaw’s wife, Marge, and their sons Michael, Peter, Stephen and Tim at the service.
Fallaw, who retired from the College in 2005, died December 13 at the age of 78 from complications of multiple myeloma. Those who spoke at his memorial service mostly told stories about the man who was their friend and co-worker, professor or mentor. Common themes included his unfailing wit and humor, his apparent disregard for personal appearance, his insatiable appetite for books, and his amazing recall of what he’d read in those books. As Rose O’Neill Literary House founder Bob Day put it, “to his students, Bob Fallaw was Google before there was an Internet.”
Former student Dave Knowles ’72 P’95 and ’99, came all the way from his home in Huntsville, Ala., to honor “the iconic professor of my undergraduate days at WC,” a mentor who would also become a fraternity brother. “In the late 1990s, my fraternity, Beta Omega Chapter of Kappa Alpha Order (KAO), was involved in an incident that resulted in disciplinary actions by both the College and by KAO,” he told the audience. “Trying to regain respectability for the chapter, I asked Bob, as a distinguished faculty member, to serve as the Faculty Advisor. Bob agreed, and his commitment in the following years provided stability and prestige to the Chapter and ultimately resulted in Bob’s induction as a Brother into KAO and into the James Ward Wood Province ‘Court of Honor’ of KAO.”
As part of the Sunday afternoon service, Douglas Ewalt ’74, a Washington College alum who serves as province commander of Kappa Alpha, presented an award to Marge Fallaw in honor of her husband.
History professor Richard Striner reminisced about how Fallaw the raconteur would hold court in the faculty lounge, “spinning yarns about whatever outrageous things were happening at the College and in the world. We all just plain loved the guy,” he added. “He was that rare gift of a profoundly happy man who elicited happiness in others.”
Retired history professor Dan Premo, who like Day arrived on campus the same year as Fallaw, in 1970, recalled his friend’s love of sports and the fun they shared as part of a faculty basketball team that competed in campus intramurals. “Bob had the sweetest two-handed set shot from mid-court of anyone on the team,” he noted. He also stressed Fallaw’s love of books. “He was the most voracious reader I’ve ever known. … Most of the time, Bob rode a bicycle to and from campus. It must have been Marge’s, because I don’t remember it having a crossbar. What it did have was a basket over the front wheel that was always filled with books. … Is it any wonder that most of us came to admire Bob’s encyclopedic memory and his ability to entertain us on almost any subject?”
Dave Wheelan, a former student of Fallaw’s who later headed up the College’s development office and now publishes the online Spy newspapers in Kent and Talbot counties, elaborated on how Fallaw had mastered the “quintessential academic apparel statement. Starting with his remarkable collection of Hush Puppies, followed by well-earned tobacco stains on his jackets, and then completed with the most remarkable skinny tie collection south of SOHO, no one could come close,” Wheelan said. “Just to add that special something, he would also periodically place breadcrumbs and jam from the morning toast on the whole ensemble. But the most genuine part of his whole look was the half-smoked cigars that would remain firmly fixed between his fingers, inside and outside the lecture hall.” That cigar, Wheelan opined, helped identify Fallaw as a rare commodity on college campuses, “a southern historian from the real South.”
History professor Clayton Black recalled being a job candidate when he met Fallaw for an interview at a professional conference. “Bob’s arm was in a cast at the time, he wore a somewhat disheveled-looking blue cardigan, and his hair gave him the appearance of having just dashed to the interview from his bed. … He wanted to engage me in conversation about history itself. It was clear that he had read substantial portions of my dissertation (if not the whole thing), and I was amazed to see how well versed he seemed to be in some of the most important debates among people in the field of Soviet history.”
Fallaw was blessed with “an almost photographic memory of all that he read,” Black noted. “He was capable of recalling obscure details from his prodigious reading, even as he struggled to remember colleagues’ names or pay attention to whether his sweater was buttoned properly.
“Bob always denied—to me, anyway—the legendary tale of his falling out of the first-floor window of Smith Hall as he leaned back on the sill during a lecture, only to return to the room a minute later and resume talking where he had left off,” Black continued. “But even if it wasn’t true, it captured a verity about Bob: Whatever his foibles, Bob loved history, he loved to talk about it, and he loved being in the classroom with students. … Bob was here because he loved the life of the mind, and I will be forever grateful that he shared that experience so generously and with such warmth and humor.”
Day, who retired in 2007 after teaching in the English Department for 37 years, recalled his friend’s neckties: “Worn over and over again, they gathered burn holes from the small Muriel cigars he smoked in class (it was that long ago). More than one student told of Bob patting out his smoldering tie fires, never stopping his teaching in the process.
“I suspect that he had more books than any of us in those days,” Day mused. “In his office in G.I. Hall during the early ’70s, they were stacked in boxes in front and around his desk, the bookshelves being full. For awhile, students sat on the boxes instead of using the chairs. Later, when Ferguson Hall was built, he had all the wall space in his office filled to the ceiling with bookshelves. After about a year I noticed there was a slight bow to the floor in Bob’s office as if the bookshelves were depressing the load-bearing walls, which it turned out they were. Bob would jump up and down … to show me how the floor joists bounced. It wasn’t long after that his entire office floor collapsed, the books and the desk (but not Bob, as it occurred during a Department meeting) falling into a hole under his office. Ever unflappable, Bob looked at the mess, flipped his cigar, and said: ‘That’s History for you.’”
(The College and an anonymous donor established an endowed scholarship in honor of Professor Fallaw when he retired in 2005. Contributions in his honor can be sent to the Fallaw Scholarship at Washington College, 300 Washington Ave., Chestertown, MD 21620.)
Obituary of Walter Robert Fallaw Jr.
Born in Durham, N.C., on March 19, 1935, Walter Robert “Bob” Fallaw, Jr. was the older son of Walter Robert Fallaw, Sr., and Amy Wilson Childs Fallaw. He was raised mainly in the nearby community of Bragtown and graduated from Bragtown High School, where his mother taught, in 1953. Four years later he earned his B.A. with distinction in history from Duke University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Awarded a fellowship, he then earned a master’s and doctorate from Princeton University, focusing on early American history—especially political history of the Jacksonian period—and American intellectual history.
Dr. Fallaw started his teaching career in 1960 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he first taught the History of Western Civilization to freshman and later became an assistant professor for American history. He came to Washington College in 1970 as director of the American studies program and associate professor of history. He was promoted to full professor in 1978 and served as department chair from 1988 to 2002. From 1998 until his retirement in 2005, he was the first Everett E. Nuttle Professor of History.
Although, at one time or another, he served on virtually every college committee and pursued research interests and publications such as serving as co-editor of The Chesapeake Bay in the American Revolution. But his primary focus was on his students. On and off campus, he was known as a scintillating lecturer and provocative discussion leader, and he always made time for students who came to his office for guidance and conversation on a wide range of topics.
Dr. Fallaw was among the first Washington College participants in the Jessie Ball duPont Summer Seminars for Liberal Arts Faculty at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina and in 1998 became the first WC faculty member to participate in the exchange program with the Université d’Artois in Arras, France. He also served as adviser to the college’s chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order, eventually becoming an initiated member himself. On a lighter note, he was a member of the perhaps infamous faculty basketball team of the 1970s, was a master of sports history (especially baseball, an interest sparked in childhood by the Durham Bulls), and could be a shameless punster.
He is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Margaret Quoos Fallaw, and four sons: Stephen R., of Chestertown; Peter A., his spouse Brady Howe, and their children Joanie, Sophia, and Finn, of near Beaver Creek, Ore.; Michael L. and his spouse Jenna, of Bozeman, Mont.; and Timothy A. and his fiancée Kimberly Bundgus and her children Chloe, Maizy, and Stella, of Bozeman, Mont. His younger brother, Wallace Craft Fallaw, died in 1995.