Asked why he is so interested in history, David Barclay, professor of history and the Margaret and Roger Scholten Professor of International Studies at Kalamazoo College, replies: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Barclay now calls himself a “sunbird.” He is locking up the door of his home in Kalamazoo one last time and moving back to his native sunny Florida, where he plans to continue exploring the lifelong question of why history, especially German history, has so drawn him in.
Barclay taught history at Kalamazoo College from 1974 to his recent retirement. He is a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century political, social, and cultural history of Germany. For many years he served as director of the Center for Western European Studies at Kalamazoo College. He is the author or co-editor of seven books on German history, and, since 2006, Barclay has been the executive director of the German Studies Association (GSA), an interdisciplinary association of historians, professors of German language and literature, political scientists, art historians, musicologists, and other scholars from 29 different countries, all sharing an interest in the German-speaking world.
His retirement promises to be as intellectually active as his K days. “I’ll continue my work as executive director for the GSA for at least another four years, taking care of day-to-day operations,” he says. “And I have several more book projects underway.”
Those projects include a history of West Berlin from 1945 to 1994 and a dual biography of German emperor and empress, Wilhelm I and Augusta. Outside the subject of Germany, he’s writing a biography of his grandfather’s “favorite eccentric uncle,” a Civil War veteran who lived in Tampa, Fla.
“Family would say Uncle John was funny in the head, but I suspect post-traumatic stress disorder,” Barclay says. “Being a historian, I can reconstruct the puzzle pieces of his life. I’ll be digging through war time records, pension records, a diary by the company sergeant that mentions him frequently.”
If Barclay can’t (or won’t) give a firm answer on why he is so fascinated by history, he can quickly recall its roots in his life. He flashes back to childhood.
“When I was a kid in the 50s, there were these inexpensive history books for kids, called ‘Landmark Books,’ published by Random House,” Barclay says. “I still have a few copies. They were written by famous historians, but in language appropriate for kids. I devoured those.”
Gifts of history books from his grandmother, an inspirational 1918 graduate of the University of Chicago, and a father with an interest in history combined to launch Barclay on his pathway to becoming a historian himself. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the University of Florida, and his Ph.D. from Stanford University. He was a graduate teaching assistant at both universities, and later taught at the University of Hanover in West Germany.
“I came to Kalamazoo College because they offered me a job,” he says. “The job market was terrible in 1974. I was in my final year of graduate school, writing a dissertation, and a professor sent my C.V. to K. I didn’t hear anything for months. It was July, insanely late, when they called me for an interview and offered me the job. Turned out I was fifth in line—they were really scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
Barclay gives a hearty laugh. He would become an icon of Kalamazoo College. Among his proudest achievements are 13 years as director of the Center for Western European Studies, and winning ongoing Title VI grants for international education.
“To this day, although the Center is now closed, we were the only undergrad college who had such a stand-alone center for more than a single grant period of three years,” he says.
He worked with local magnet schools, organized a weekly international film series, ran a local community outreach television program, and headed interdisciplinary faculty discussion groups. Barclay also sat on two Kalamazoo College presidential search committees, ultimately selecting Jimmy Jones and Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran. In 2006-07, Barclay was named the George H.W. Bush/Axel Springer Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.
“That was academic heaven, a highlight for me as an American historian,” he says. “Americans from various fields were invited to live and work in a villa in Berlin for an extended period of time.”
Barclay continues to travel to Germany, by now something of a second home. “I can’t imagine life without those near annual trips,” he says. “In Florida, I will live near an airport with a direct flight to Frankfurt.”
Barclay travels for pleasure, but always with an eye for how he might yet expand his knowledge and understanding of humankind’s evolution through time.
“I’m not particularly hopeful, however, that people will ever learn from history,” he says. “History is more of an oracle, as the Cambridge historian Chris Clark puts it. It rarely teaches us clear-cut lessons. What it does do—it situates us on a timeline. Living without knowledge of our history would be like waking up one morning an amnesiac. It’s a compass to orient us.”