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Alumni E-News

Foresters remember Professor of Politics Bob Steamer

An alumnus and a retired Lake Forest College professor remember Professor of Politics Bob Steamer, who taught at Lake Forest College from 1962-1972 and died in January.

Robert J. Steamer, who will be fondly remembered by many Foresters from the 60s, died on January 24, 2013, in State College, PA. Bob chaired Lake Forest College’s Government Department from 1962 to 1972, and taught Constitutional Law, American Political Thought, and other American politics courses. Bob had been personally recruited to Lake Forest College by its new president, William Graham Cole, after having taught for six years at Louisiana State University, and before that at the University of Massachusetts and Oglethorpe University. In 1961 he served as a staff consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.           

Bob’s Con Law courses were famous for their intellectual rigor and excitement. They were organized much as a law school course would be. Students were expected to come to class prepared to analyze Supreme Court decisions in considerable depth and detail. In 1965 Lake Forest College’s senior class chose Bob to receive its “Great Teacher” award. His convocation speech on that occasion called for a higher level of morality in public life. Bob was known by colleagues and students for his own high standards and absolute integrity, but also for his generosity and good will. The old-fashioned term that captures Bob’s best qualities is “gentleman.” 

While at Lake Forest Bob wrote many scholarly articles and two books: The Supreme Court in Crisis and The Supreme Court: Constitutional Revsion and the New Constructionism. Later he added two more books – The Chief Justice: Leadership in the Supreme Court, completed during a sabbatical year at Oxford University, and American Constitutional Law: Introduction and Case Studies (with Richard Maiman). Bob left Lake Forest in 1972 to teach at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. Within a few years he was appointed dean of his college, and after that, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs of the university. He then returned with pleasure to the faculty until his retirement in 1987. In 1979-80 Bob served as president of the New England Political Science Association. After his retirement, Bob and his wife Jean moved back to their home town of Rochester, NY, where Jean died in 2006. Bob is survived by his sons, Gregg and Jim, and their wives, his three grandchildren, and his sister.

Bob Steamer played an incredibly important role in my life. Early in my junior year he decided, based on what at that point was rather thin evidence, that I would be a good candidate for graduate study in political science. To make that happen, he told me that he wanted to nominate me for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Up until then, that had not been my plan, but in fact I really had no plan, and so in due course I was nominated, interviewed, and, incredibly, awarded the fellowship. By then I was deep into writing my senior honors thesis under Bob’s tutelage. Had it not been for Bob’s encouragement and support, grad school would have been out of reach for me, both financially and otherwise. He made me believe that it was something I could and should do. And he must have been right, because I went on to become a college professor, happily teaching political science courses with a specialty in constitutional law for 40 years. In 1990 Bob and I had the mutually satisfying experience of co-authoring a constitutional law textbook. Throughout my career I did my best to follow Bob Steamer’s shining example, both professionally and personally.

A few years ago, Bob told me that not long after he accepted President Cole’s offer to come to Lake Forest College, he was offered his “dream job,” an academic chair at his own alma mater, Bucknell College. He said that he turned down Bucknell’s offer, with some regrets but no second thoughts, because he had already shaken Bill Cole’s hand on the deal. Bob wanted me to understand, though, that he had greatly enjoyed his Lake Forest College years, despite that shaky start. I’m grateful that Bob Steamer’s sense of honor brought him to Lake Forest, where he changed my life – and a lot of our lives – for the better.

—Richard Maiman ’67

Bob Steamer warmly welcomed me into the Lake Forest College community in 1966. He mentored me on how to teach undergraduate students effectively after I had begun teaching as if I were still in a graduate seminar at Columbia University. His scholarship and his great teaching were examples to me on how to combine teaching and writing while working at a small liberal arts college. He and Jean often entertained Judy and me as we got to know faculty and family from all the other departments thus developing the sense of collegial informality I came to love about the College. Bob was the founder of the strong Politics Department (then called the Department of Government) that continues down to this day. Bob will always be remembered by his colleagues and his students as the epitome of what it means to be a good, inspiring Professor and an academic leader. 

—Jonathan, Professor of Politics, Emeritus (1966-2002)