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In Memoriam: Clay McShane


Members of the History Department were recently saddened to learn of the passing of a valued colleague and historian, Professor Emeritus Clay McShane, who died October 29, 2017.

Clay was not only a devoted husband and father: he was also a dedicated teacher, a supportive colleague, and a skilled and innovative scholar. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1975, and was hired to fill a position in urban history in the History Department at Northeastern University in 1976. For the duration of his career, Clay maintained a scholarly focus on modes of transportation in American cities. This interest inspired many articles and several books including, for the latter, Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City (1994), The Automobile: A Chronology of its Antecedents, Development, and Impact (1997), and and The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, co-written with Joel Tarr (2011).  Clay’s teaching also reflected these interests: for example, among many other courses on urban history Clay regularly co-taught a course with colleague Gerry Herman on the history of the automobile in the United States. Clay retired from Northeastern University in 2012 after thirty-six years of service in the History Department.

Many members of the department shared their memories of Clay as a colleague, and we share some of these below.

Several faculty members recalled with warmth Clay’s welcome as they joined the department as junior colleagues. Kate Luongo remembered that “He was so kind and welcoming when I joined the department. He had a passion for and great knowledge of the history of Boston. When I told him that I was living in Back Bay, he gave me a book on the history of the neighborhood that included a history of my street and a picture of my building. It was a really thoughtful gesture from one historian to another.” Ilham Khuri-Makdisi recalled, “Clay was really so extremely supportive, especially towards his junior faculty colleagues. It made a huge difference, as I was beginning my academic career, to have him around. … He was interested in my work and generally about urban history beyond the US, and introduced me to the work of a number of important urban historians, whose work was important for my own. He also recruited me to serve as one of the readers for a best book prize in non-US urban history that the Journal of Urban History was offering. It was a wonderful experience, that got me to read widely on urban history and again, really impacted the way my scholarship has developed. He was genuinely a wonderful man and a great colleague. RIP.” Laura Frader echoed this latter sentiment, which was shared by junior and senior faculty alike, remembering that Clay “was a great colleague and a good (and innovative) historian of American social history.” For several years Frader co-taught a course with Clay on work and leisure. “The course focused on the US and Europe and Clay was an incredible source of information about US history and cultural practices. It was great to work with someone so knowledgeable and at the same time so easy-going. In addition, he was a terrific mentor to undergraduates. As head of undergraduate studies while I was Department Chair, he very likely attracted numerous undergrads into the History major.”

Jeffrey Burds elaborated on Clay’s effectiveness as a teacher, recalling “One of my favorite classes of all time was a seminar co-taught with Clay McShane on the international history of the Cold War. He did everything American; I did everything Soviet. We had some passionate discussions that term, blending Clay’s personal memories with lectures and readings. The students loved it. . . . Another favorite memory of Clay was when we recreated the History Program curriculum back in 2002. Clay kindly agreed to take our new majors each autumn on a walking tour of Boston, beginning at the Boston Common and then walking through Beacon Hill to Government Center, narrating throughout the history of the notorious Harvard murder of 1849, when a professor in the Harvard Medical School (then at the current site of Mass General Hospital today) John Webster murdered his landlord in Beacon Hill George Parkman, and disposed of the body into the Charles River from his Harvard office. Clay used the scandalous narrative to talk about the history of Boston, especially the culture of everyday life on Beacon Hill. It was the best kind of Northeastern history, rooted in the praxis of the city he loved.”

Long-time colleague Bill Fowler offered several memories that capture much of the kind of teacher, scholar, and colleague that Clay embodied. “Clay was the undergrad advisor when I returned to NU. He had done the job for quite a while and asked if I would succeed him. I agreed but only after he agreed to stand by me. He was great. Clay was quick to see what was important (the students) and what was less important (university bureaucracy). He taught me how to navigate and avoid the rocks and shoals – all with good humor. On a personal note he and Carolyn were gracious hosts who always welcomed colleagues at their home. Clay was devoted to his family and relished his New York Irish heritage. In typical Irish fashion he and I would argue who had the poorest Irish immigrant ancestors!! … In addition I would add that Clay was an extraordinary undergraduate advisor. He championed students when they needed a champion and counseled them when they needed to change direction. As a scholar he had an international reputation. His work on transportation stands as an example of the very best scholarship. It is enduring.”

Clay McShane’s accomplishments continue to positively affect the History Department long after his departure, and he will not be forgotten. We extend our deepest sympathies to Clay’s family for their loss.

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