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April 5, 2006 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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Gwin J. Kolb, 1919-2006

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Gwin J. Kolb (circa 1979)
Gwin J. Kolb
In the News
“Gwin J. Kolb, 86, Authority on Samuel Johnson's Works, Dies”
[New York Times]
April 14, 2006

Gwin J. Kolb, one of the nation’s leading authorities on 18th century English literature and Samuel Johnson, and highly regarded teacher at the University of Chicago, died Monday, April 3 at Montgomery Place in Hyde Park. He was 86. Kolb, the Chester D. Tripp Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and English Language & Literature, dedicated more than half a century to teaching and studying at the University of Chicago.

“He was a great model of graciousness and generosity,” said David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature, who worked alongside Kolb for many years.

A native of Aberdeen, Miss., Kolb was noted by several of his colleagues for his charm, wit and for being a “scholar gentleman.” A 1941 graduate of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. — where he met Ruth Godbold, his future wife of 62 years, when he graded her English papers — Kolb went on to dedicate most of his professional life to the University of Chicago, where he earned his master’s degree in 1946 and his doctoral degree in 1949.

“He was utterly loyal and a genteel, caring person, taking on unglamorous administrative responsibilities, housing needs, teaching assignments, whatever it was that needed to be done to keep people feeling welcome and appreciated,” Bevington said.

Kolb was also “a tireless teacher,” noted Bevington. In 1955, Kolb received the University’s Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and was a Guggenheim Fellow from 1956 to 1957.

“He had the ability to beautifully communicate his sense of love for his subject,” Bevington said.

More often than not, that subject was Samuel Johnson, one of the earliest writers to compile an extensive dictionary of the English language and the author of the novel, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Kolb was the author or editor of nine books, six of which focused on Johnson. At various times throughout his career Kolb served as President of the Johnson Society of the Great Lakes Region, Chairman of The Johnsonians, Co-President of the Johnson Society of the Central Region, and member of the General Editorial Committee of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson.

As a member of the General Editorial Committee at Yale for more than 30 years, Kolb edited Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Other Tales, Vol. XVI of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (1990), and co-edited with Robert DeMaria Vol. XVIII, Johnson on the English Language, published in October 2005.

“The pair of volumes is nothing less than a work for the ages,” said Bruce Redford, Professor of Art History and English at Boston University who taught at the University of Chicago in the 1980s.

Kolb was first introduced to the work of Johnson, whom he called “the dictionary man,” when he was in high school and read an essay on Johnson that said his writings “would cease to be read, but that his conversation would attract readers as long as the English language endured.” Said Kolb many years later, looking back on his own career: “I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Kolb liked Johnson because he was “interested in language itself and in the way that language evolved,” said his son, Jack Kolb, a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And I think he also was captivated by Johnson’s personality.”

In a standard speech he would give as a way of introducing students to Johnson and his work, Kolb would point out that his academic muse, perhaps the greatest literary dictator of all time, famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

A professor in English from 1949 until his retirement in 1989, Kolb served as Chair of the undergraduate English staff from 1959 to 1960, Head of the undergraduate Humanities Division from 1960 to 1962, Chair of the English department from 1963 to 1972, Co-editor of the University’s Modern Philology journal from 1973 to 1989, and Residential Master with his wife Ruth of the Burton-Judson Courts student residence hall from 1974 to 1978.

In addition to his remarkable dedication to the University and welcome blend of humor and scholarly work, Kolb was also known as a book collector, amassing an impressive collection of Johnson and his contemporaries, part of which is now in the University’s Special Collections Research Center. He was also a longtime member of the University committee that awards the T. Kimball Brooker Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting.

“I could see in those interactions with students that there was magic going on,” said Alice Schreyer, Director of Special Collections. “He charmed them as he did his colleagues and his friends, and he easily brought students into the world that he loved.”

Kolb served as an ensign in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1945 in both North Africa and the Pacific Ocean.

“Gwin personified the humanity in the humanities and the finest ideals of the University of Chicago,” said Redford. “He was a gentle man and a gentleman.”

Kolb is survived by his wife, Ruth Godbold Kolb; son Jack Kolb; daughter Alma Dean Kolb; and two granddaughters. Ruth Kolb worked for many years in the University’s Office of Career Counseling and Placement, Jack Kolb earned his bachelor’s degree from the University in 1967, and Alma Dean Kolb earned her bachelor’s in 1972 and works as an editor in the University’s Press.
Last modified at 04:36 PM CST on Friday, April 14, 2006.

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