OBITUARY: Gary B. Nash, Esteemed Historian, Author, UCLA Professor

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Long-time Pacific Palisades resident Gary Nash, who was born July 27, 1933, in Philadelphia, died of colon cancer on July 29.

A UCLA professor who retired in 1994, Nash wrote more than 30 history books and textbooks and more than 100 pieces for dozens of publications that focused on American history, race and class.

In a 2005 interview, Nash said that while he didn’t start out knowing that he wanted to be a historian, he did grow up in Philadelphia, which is about 10 miles from Valley Forge. “The Revolutionary War sites were always a mystique,” he said. “As a kid I saw earth fortifications or the log huts where the soldiers lived in 1777-78. And Philadelphia is certainly a history-sod city.”

With the input of dozens of educational and historical organizations around the country, and with government funding initiated in 1991, Nash and Charlotte Crabtree compiled the “National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present” (1994) at UCLA.

According to encyclopedia.com, “The curriculum they recommended for students became highly controversial, with some saying that it takes political correctness too far by putting a negative spin on Western civilization; others went so far as to call it racist, if perhaps unintentionally so.

“As Washington Post contributor Guy Gugliotta reported, former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney, who had approved of the grants for the project when it began, said that by ’deciding not to give any emphasis to Western civilization, they lost any organizing principle,’ asserting that an emphasis on the West is essential for the understanding of ‘the rise of democratic standards.”

Nash and Crabtree sold more than 70,000 copies of the standards, which were used by state school leaders in designing curricula. Afterward, Nash, Crabtree and Ross Dunn co-wrote a book about the episode, titled “History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past.” A Times review called the book “deeply informed, balanced and compelling.”

Appearing at Village Books on Swarthmore for his book “The Unknown American Revolution,” Nash said, “Those long-forgotten men and women from the middle and lower ranks of America made up most of the people of revolutionary America. Without their ideas, dreams and blood sacrifices, the American Revolution would never have occurred.”

Nash was born in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia to Ralph and Edith Nash. His neighborhood was white and conservative. He attended Princeton University on a scholarship and afterward served three years in the Navy. He returned to Princeton for his doctorate in history and in 1966 accepted a position at UCLA and moved his family west.

Nash married Mary Workum in December 1955 (divorced). The couple had four children: Brooke, Robin, Jennifer and David. He remarried Cynthia Shelton in 1981.

According to an August 6 L.A. Times story (“Gary B. Nash, UCLA Historian Who shaped American History Curriculum, Dies at 88”), “In an interview with the Economist about the recent politically driven outrage over the teachings of race in K-12 classrooms, Nash said the attempts to ban ‘uncomfortable’ conversations will lead to less productive discussions.

“‘We want division of opinions for young people to grow up learning to express themselves, argue about it, think hard about it,’ Nash said. ‘Patriotism is not just saluting the flag. It’s becoming responsible citizens who will take an active role in what’s going on around them.’”

His wife of 40 years, Cynthia J. Shelton, said he helped integrate businesses, including banks and markets. She suspects his passion came from his years of studying history.

When UCLA tried to fire Angela Davis for being a member of the Communist Party, Nash led the Angela Davis Defense Committee. His efforts prompted a visit from the FBI to his home in Pacific Palisades. He also posed as a home buyer to help Black families who were being discriminated against.

“He was kind of a radical,” daughter Brooke Nash told the Times. “He was not afraid to take action. He acted on his convictions all his life.”

 

Nash is survived by his wife, four children, nine grandchildren, a sister and a brother.

Local writer Bob Vickrey, a former bookseller for Houghton Mifflin, told Circling the News that “Gary Nash wrote many of the best-selling history textbooks used by students throughout the country for decades.

“The textbook division of Houghton Mifflin, the company I worked for before my retirement, published many of his books. Gary would likely have been considered the company’s best-selling author if there had been statistics kept that compared sales of textbooks with general trade books. As a matter of fact, he probably would have rivaled bestselling authors John Grisham and Stephen King in national book sales. His history textbooks were dominant in adoptions in some of the major school markets like California, Texas and Ohio.”

Vickrey continued, “Of course, his truth-telling about the backgrounds of ethnic minorities and their role in our nation’s history created quite a stir among the crowd that liked their history told as solely Caucasian-based. He always fought back fiercely on that front.

“I only met him once or twice at Village Books, but when he found out that I worked for Houghton Mifflin, he grinned at me and said, “I want you to know that I helped pay for your last company bonus.”

“I added, ‘From what I understand from friends at my company, you also helped me pay for my house.'”

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2 Responses to OBITUARY: Gary B. Nash, Esteemed Historian, Author, UCLA Professor

  1. Ruth W. Mills says:

    I was at UCLA from 1970 to 1974, and I was lucky enough to have Gary Nash as a U.S. History professor. I was not a history major, but I’ve always loved U.S. history. I found his class fascinating and well-crafted, and I never dreamed of missing it. Sorry to learn that he has died; I’m sure he still had more to give the world. Rest in peace, Professor Nash.

  2. Mary Cole says:

    I am very sorry to hear of Garys passing. We became friends back in the early
    seventies. I remember many evenings in his home having interesting discussions.

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