In Memoriam: Professor Emeritus Robert H. Fossum

Private memorial services are being planned for Professor Emeritus Robert H. Fossum, the former Josephine Olp Weeks Professor of Literature at CMC, who died peacefully on November 6, 2008 at the Mount San Antonio Gardens Health Center in Pomona. The cause of death was heart failure.

Fossum, who began his career at CMC in 1963 as an associate professor, is remembered by former director of The Gould Center and Professor Emeritus Ricardo Quinones as “the sturdy senior voice of the department who always spoke with the good sense that came from experience and mature consideration.”

Fossum was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, in 1923 and attended public schools there, graduating from high school in 1941. For the next two years he took classes at the University of Wisconsin Extension, worked for the Beloit Recreation Department and for a local defense plant, and supplemented his income by serving as a reporter for Down Beat magazine and as a semiprofessional fast-pitch softball player.

In the mid-1940s he came to California, where he worked for the Los Angeles County and Pasadena recreation departments while attending Pasadena City College. Returning to his hometown, he graduated in 1948 from Beloit College, magna cum laude, with honors in English and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. After earning an M.A. in English from the University of Southern California in 1950, he joined the English Department at his alma mater. Starting as an instructor, he rose to the rank of associate professor and served as chairman of the department for three years, as well as chairman of the humanities division for one year.

A two-year leave of absence and fellowships from the Lilly and Shell foundations enabled him to work toward his Ph.D. at the Claremont Graduate School, where he was awarded the degree in 1963. Having by that time resigned from Beloit, he had been teaching for one year at California State University in Los Angeles when President George Benson invited him to join the faculty at CMC, where he was instrumental in organizing the English and foreign languages departments into a single department of literature and languages. He chaired that department for seven years, during which time a major in literature was firmly established and the literature curriculum revised accordingly.

“He and professor John Dunbar were instrumental in shaping the program to a strong teaching department that also had a firm commitment to research and publication,” recalls Professor Emeritus Langdon Elsbree, describing his longtime friend and CMC colleague as “both warm and witty,” someone widely read and firm when the occasion demanded it. “Bob will be deeply missed. He was crucial to the department in helping it to develop into a strong entity.”

Professor Emeritus Michael Riley, who taught for more than three decades at CMC, recalls meeting Fossum in his office years ago, when Fossum was chair of the literature department.

“He offered me my first college teaching job,” Riley says. “At the time I could hardly have supposed it would mark the beginning of a lifelong friendship whose hallmarks were generosity, kindness, wisdom, humor, and great personal warmthall joined in a man with an exceptionally keen intellect and a profound knowledge of American literature, and who was an elegant writer.”

In 1969-70, Fossum was Fulbright Professor of American Literature at both the University of Vienna and the University of Graz; the latter awarded him its Medal for Meritorious Service in 1970. During a break in the American academic year in 1974, he gave a series of lectures on American literature at various universities in Italy, Austria, and Germany, lectures sponsored by the United States Information Service. In 1976-77 he was invited to return to Vienna for a second term as a Fulbright Professor of American Literature.

In 1978, Fossum succeeded John R. Dunbar as the Josephine Olp Weeks Professor of Literature at CMC, a title he held until his retirement in 1987. From 1963 until 1987, he taught at least one graduate seminar a year at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) as well as supervising several dissertations and being a member of the English Department Executive Committee. He also taught occasional night and summer school courses at Cal State L.A.

Over the course of his professional career, Fossum published critical reviews and articles on Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Koestler, Saul Bellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Norman Mailer, Cleanth Brooks, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, and trends in contemporary fiction. He published books on Hawthorne and Styron; co-authored (with CMC professor John Roth) two books on the American Dream; and co-authored (with Sy Kahn) two books of poems, Facing Mirrors and Further Reflections.

The books with Professor Emeritus John Roth were inspired by Perspectives on the American Dream, a popular course the two men co-taught for many years. “Working with Bob in that way was one of my best educational experiences ever,” says Roth. “He taught me a great deal about American literature. One other detail about Bob’s life will stand out for those who knew him, and it testifies, I believe, to the precision and clarity of his thinking and writing. Bob’s handwriting was elegant, beautiful, and a joy to read not only because of what it said, but also because of his graceful penmanship. In every way,” Roth says, “he was a fine writer, a brilliant editor, and a creative thinker.”

Robert Faggen, the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature, says Fossum was “a fine poet.” Faggen says he enjoyed Fossum’s book, Facing Mirrors, for its unusual engagement of two poets. “His humor and kindness earned him the respect of everyone in the literature department, well beyond his retirement,” Faggen added.

In fact, says professor of literature and current department chair Nicholas Warner, “Although Bob retired from CMC more than 20 years ago, he never retired from the life of the mind, but kept reading, writing, and publishing his own poetry. He was a wonderful mentor, role model, and friend to me for almost 30 years, despite our difference in age.”

Warner says they discussed everything and anything: family, politics, literature, travel, musicsports. “His easygoing, unassuming manner belied deep learning and a razor-sharp intellect,” Warner says. “In fact, just a few weeks before his death, he was still able to correct me on details pertaining both to poetry and baseballtwo of our favorite topics of conversation. He was, in every way, the real deal.”

Fossum and his wife Virginia (Gigi) were married in 1952 and moved to Claremont in 1964. His wife survives him, as do their children, grandchildren, and sons-in-law: Kristin Fossum and David Coons; Robert P., Robert C., and Eric Fossum; and Elizabeth, Steven, Rina, and Angela Meckler. His sister, Verna Squire, died in January. A private family remembrance gathering will be held later this year.

Memorial gifts may be made to a charity of preference.