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April 4, 2005

Historian, Philanthropist, Wilda Van Dusen, Dies

Wilda Elizabeth Van Dusen died on March 14 after a lengthy struggle with metastatic breast cancer. She was 82.

Born in Durham, N.C., she entered Duke University in 1941. She began as a modern languages major, but switched to history, and in her junior year took a course with a history instructor named Albert Van Dusen, “Van” to all who knew him well. They began a romance and a shared life of historical research and teaching that spanned 55 years. They were married on May 3, 1946.

After the war, Van taught part-time at Wesleyan University for a year while he worked on his Ph.D. dissertation about the economic history of colonial Connecticut. Wilda helped by working during the day, and editing and typing his dissertation at night. Van then found full-time employment as an historian for the U. S. Army in Washington, D.C., and Wilda obtained a clerical position at the recently formed Central Intelligence Agency.

While at Wesleyan, the couple had visited the rapidly expanding University of Connecticut, and when the history department needed to fill a new position in American Colonial history for the fall of 1949, they responded enthusiastically. At that time, however, the department was still operating out of a Quonset hut, and faculty housing was in short supply. When the University’s new Mansfield Apartments were not finished on time, they had to live for three months in a cabin with no running water and only a fireplace for heat.

Wilda worked for several years as an acquisitions librarian in the University’s Wilbur Cross Library, but by the time Van was appointed as Connecticut’s State Historian in 1952, she had become his full-time partner in teaching and research.

She became an accomplished archival researcher as he worked on his 1961 opus, Connecticut, which has been the standard one-volume work on Connecticut history for more than a generation. Her eye for detail also made her an invaluable editor, proofreader, and indexer.

“Van could never have produced two superbly edited volumes of The Public Records of the State of Connecticut without her,” says Allen Ward, professor emeritus of history. “Her knowledge of the collections in the Connecticut State Library and the Connecticut Historical Society and her ability to ferret out obscure or misplaced documents became legendary.”

At the time of the U. S. bicentennial, Van obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to edit the papers of Connecticut’s Revolutionary War governor, Jonathan Trumbull, and Wilda helped in many ways. Unfortunately, Van’s Parkinson’s disease prevented the final editing and publication of their labors. When Van retired in 1985, he and Wilda donated the thousands of pages of material they had collected to the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, where they will be available to future generations of scholars.

They also established the Albert E. and Wilda E. Van Dusen Scholarship, which is awarded annually to an outstanding graduate student in the history department. The scholarship symbolizes the great care and love the couple had for Van’s students.

After Wilda developed breast cancer in 1998, the care she received at the UConn Health Center moved her to endow the Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Chair in Academic Medicine. Through careful management and conservative investments, starting with a few thousand dollars after Van retired, she built up enough over 20 years to establish the endowment.

Wilda is survived by many close friends, especially Julie Jetton, her cousin, and Allen Ward, who helped care for her and Van during their long illnesses.

Those who wish to make a donation in her memory may contribute to the Albert E. and Wilda E. Van Dusen Scholarship Fund. Checks should be made out to the University of Connecticut Foundation, with Van Dusen Scholarship Fund in the memo line, and sent to Prof. Allen M. Ward, 85 Ball Hill Road, Storrs, CT 06268.