Noel Stowe leaves his mark on Arizona history

Noel Stowe, an ASU professor who founded the university’s Public History Program and is recognized for his work in helping Arizona preserve its heritage, died Dec. 13 at the age of 66. A memorial ceremony to celebrate his life will be held in late January.

Stowe joined ASU in 1967 as an assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He served as chair of the department from 1998 to 2007. In 1978, Stowe became the department’s director of graduate study. In his eight years in that position he expanded the master’s and doctoral degree programs and founded the Public History Program, which under his direction achieved national and international recognition. In 1987, Stowe became assistant dean of the Graduate College and in 1991 became associate dean. He also served one year as interim dean of the Graduate College.

In his role as director of graduate study, Stowe directed more than 50 graduate theses and dissertations. His students have gone on to direct public history programs at other universities, and to work in museums, historical societies, and archives across the country, as well as in nearly every historical organization in Arizona.

“I am just one of many who have known the profound privilege of being a student of Dr. Stowe's,” says Catherine May, who earned her master’s degree and undergraduate degrees in history from ASU. “Dr. Stowe was a teacher in every sense of the word. He was a leader in the field of public history; knowledgeable, brilliant, creative, compassionate, generous … he brought integrity and respect to the classroom.

“After graduation, Dr. Stowe continued to teach as a mentor, a partner and a friend. As news of his death spreads across the country, to his former students at universities, in museums and archives, in the corporate world and the public sector, we share similar conversations in our loss and grief. Dr. Stowe was so important to each of us. He helped us to form our professional paths, to embrace a commitment to service, and to value collaboration. We will miss his kind strength and his humble wisdom. With Dr. Stowe's death, our ‘cornerstone’ is gone; rebuilding that key spot will be our newest challenge,” May says.

“During his first four years as chair, not only did he work to improve the graduate program, but he also succeeded in rationalizing the undergraduate program,” says Rachel Fuchs, an ASU professor of history who served with Stowe for four years as associate chair.

“He had the vision of an undergraduate education for history majors that incorporated thematic issues that transcended the traditional geographical boundaries that had marked our discipline. Throughout his life, he embodied the highest ideals of understanding and compassion for colleagues and students. He always considered the best interests of the history department, and especially those of his junior colleagues, giving sage advice. To the very end, he thought of his students, trying to keep up with his teaching, advising, and even writing letters of recommendation,” says Fuchs.

Stowe’s assistant, Norma Villa, says “Noel was known to all in the department for his infamous 2 a.m. emails. Apparently, the man never slept. He was compassionate and caring and he had a sense of humor with which I easily and quickly related. As his assistant, my office was always next to his. I would often hear his hearty laugh come through the walls. His laugh was infectious; I couldn’t help but laugh myself even though I hadn’t a clue as to what he was laughing at. He had a coffee mug that could not be mistaken for anyone else’s and it would often turn up in the oddest places. He was known for the candy dish of M&M’S® he kept on his desk. I can’t imagine how many pounds of M&M’S® I’ve eaten over the last seven years. I will miss his laugh.”

Mark von Hagen, who became chair of the department in fall 2007 says “Noel built a wonderfully talented faculty and, above all, the Public History Program with its international reputation, all of which I am grateful to have inherited. He was also a living embodiment of the department’s outreach to community organizations. He will be sorely missed.”

At ASU, Stowe’s achievements in teaching and service were recognized with the Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, the Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award, the Faculty Appreciation Award, and the History Associates Award. He received many other honors throughout his life, including the 2008 Governor’s Heritage Preservation Honor Award this past June and the Friend of the Humanities Award in 2004 from the Arizona Humanities Council.

“Noel Stowe has raised the profile of public history in the state, the region and the nation,” says Deborah Losse, dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “His dedication to preservation and conservation both in his role as university professor and public citizen have done much to advance public awareness for these issues. Under his leadership, the stature of the department of history grew through his connections with the discipline at the national level.”

Stowe was a member of both the state and local boards of the Arizona Historical Society and helped establish Friends of Arizona Archives, serving as their vice president and as a member of their advisory board. His work with the Coordinating Council for History in Arizona enhanced both training and the exchange of expert knowledge among workers in Arizona cultural institutions. When he and his family moved to Chandler, he helped found the public history program and the city museum.

He was a member of the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission and was particularly excited about the coming centennial of statehood, having organized a conference for the 75th anniversary that resulted in the publication of “Arizona at Seventy-Five: the Next Twenty-Five Years” (1987), which he co-edited, notes Fuchs.

Stowe was a productive scholar, with three books and more than a dozen articles published. He directed grant-funded projects of more than $1 million. In August 2008, he and a team of researchers received a National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant to design and implement “Becoming Arizona,” an online e-cyclopedia of Arizona history, culture, politics, economics and other topics as a centennial project.

Stowe also worked tirelessly on the national stage to broaden the opportunities for historians beyond the walls of the university. He was one of the founders of the National Council on Public History and served as its president in 1985-1986. He had represented the council as a delegate to the American Council of Learned Societies since 2005.

Stowe became active in the Oral History Association in the 1980s. He was a member of the executive board of the Southwest Oral History Association from 1989 to 1994 and its president in 1992. He was a lifetime member of the Organization of American Historians. He participated in the work of the American Historical Association as a member of the Committee on Redefining Scholarly Work from 1992 to 1994; as a participant in the association’s Wingspread Group on the Future of the History Master’s Degree in 2005; and as a member of the Task Force on Public History from 2001 to 2005. He worked on the Program Committee for the American Association for State and Local History from 2002 to 2007.

Stowe, who was born in Sacramento, Calif., earned a bachelor’s degree in history and social studies in 1963 and a doctorate in history in 1970 from the University of Southern California.

Stowe is survived by his wife, Gwen, who retired as an assistant dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Their son, James, died in 2007.

Donations may be made in his memory to the ASU Foundation for the Noel J. and Gwen J. Stowe Public History Endowment, c/o Department of History, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4302. The endowment will help support scholarly activities in public history in the Department of History, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe campus.