The Columns

William A. Jenks, Professor of History Emeritus at W&L, Dies at 97

— by on October 14th, 2015

William Alexander Jenks, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History Emeritus at Washington and Lee University, died this past Monday, Oct. 12. He was 97. A 1939 graduate of W&L, he taught at his alma mater for 37 years, from 1946 until his retirement in 1983.

“A fellow alumnus once told me he had majored not so much in history but in Jenks,” said W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio, a 1976 graduate. “I know exactly what he meant. Bill Jenks infused generations of students with a passion for learning. His devotion to teaching undergraduates will continue to inspire his successors. We are so grateful for his long life and for his many gifts to our community.”

Jenks was born on Jan. 20, 1918, in Jacksonville, Florida, to Thomas W. and Marjorie G. Jenks. He graduated from W&L in 1939 with a B.A. in history, magna cum laude. He held an M.A. (1940) and Ph.D. (1949) in European history from Columbia University.

During World War II, Jenks served in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of captain, and in the Office of Strategic Services. In 1946, he worked at the Department of State.

Jenks joined the W&L history faculty in 1946. He became the department head in 1970 and was appointed the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History in 1971.

During his nearly four decades at W&L, Jenks taught a range of subjects under the umbrella of European history. His students who went on to their own scholarly careers were known as the “Jenks Mafia.”

From 1964 to 1966, he sat on President’s Advisory Committee at W&L during the committee’s supervision of the university’s institutional self-study.

Jenks wrote four books: “The Austrian Electoral Reform of 1907” (1950), “Vienna and the Young Hitler” (1960), “Austria Under the Iron Ring, 1879–1893” (1965) and “Francis Joseph and the Italians, 1849–1859” (1978). He contributed scholarly articles and book reviews to many publications, including the Austrian History Yearbook, Journal of Modern History, American Historical Review and the Slavic Review.

Jenks studied in Italy and Austria under the auspices of the Fund for the Advancement of Education and the Fulbright Program; in Austria under a Social Science Research Council grant; in Austria and Italy with a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies; and in Italy and England under a Ford Foundation Humanities Grant.

In 1978, Jenks wrote of his preference for teaching at a small undergraduate institution like W&L instead of a large graduate school. “I’ve been much happier in teaching medieval history for a while, then teaching the 17th century for a while, teaching the French Revolution and Napoleon for a while — just moving around with a great deal of freedom. . . . Some of the best students I’ve had have gone on in other fields.”

He also served as a visiting professor of history at the University of Virginia, Duke University, the University of Maryland, Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech.

Jenks belonged to the Phi Eta Sigma, Phi Beta Kappa and Omicron Delta Kappa national societies. As a student, he was a member of Sigma Nu social fraternity. As a scholar, he belonged to the American Historical Association.

In 2007, a book titled “. . . Ending with a Flourish: A Collection of Essays Celebrating William A. Jenks — Teacher, Scholar, Mentor, Friend” gathered tributes from such admirers and former students as Roger Mudd ’50, famed journalist and founder of the W&L Mudd Center for Ethics; J. Holt Merchant ’61, professor of history emeritus at W&L; Larry Boetsch ’69, professor of Romance languages and former director of the W&L Center for International Education; Gerry Lenfest ’53, ’55L, one of the university’s most generous benefactors; and President Ruscio.

“Of the heroes of my W&L years as student, teacher, and administrator, Jenks is the one whom I identify as a precise embodiment of this school’s ideal professor,” wrote Robert E.R. Huntley ’50, ’57L, former president of W&L, in the book. “An accomplished and productive scholar, a teacher who drew out the best in the young minds that encountered his, a campus citizen whose understanding of our most exalted ideals was joined with capacity for practical solutions.”

In 2009, Jenks received W&L’s Distinguished Alumnus Award on the occasion of his 70th class reunion.

A prize and two scholarships pay additional tribute to Jenks. Following his 1983 retirement, friends and former students established the William A. Jenks Award in History for W&L graduates undertaking graduate work in history. The William A. Jenks Scholarship benefits students of unusual academic merit with a strong interest in history. And the Class of 1954 William A. Jenks Scholarship was established by members of that class as part of their 50th reunion. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that gifts go to one of these funds.

His wife of 54 years, Jane Irving Jenks, died in 2003. The hospitable couple were renowned for opening their home to students. Their son, Thomas W. Jenks II, died in 1996. Jenks is survived by his daughter, Elaine Jenks Emerson, of Lexington; his daughter-in-law, Natalie Land Jenks; his granddaughter, Kendra Emerson Kilburn ’07, and her husband, John Kilburn; and his great-granddaughter, Addison Paige Kilburn.

Services will be private.

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