Published: Jan. 8, 2016

Original article can be found at Daily Camera  
Originally published on January 8, 2016 By Charlie Brennan 

Patty Limerick, masterful in charting mankind’s progress across the expanse of time, is having herself a moment. 

Limerick, Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, is adding two more considerable distinctions to a list of career accomplishments already heavily weighted with lofty honors. 

On Monday, it will be announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities is naming Limerick to the National Council on the Humanities. That board of 26 distinguished private citizens reviews and provides oversight to the new grant-making process, awarding between $120 million and $130 million in grants each year. 

Limerick was nominated by President Barack Obama last spring and confirmed by the Senate in November. 

“She is a very distinguished historian and has done extraordinary things at the Center of the American West. She has a perfect profile for us,” said William D. Adams, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, 

Also, officials at History Colorado, the historical society operating as a state agency under the Department of Higher Education, on Monday will make official the appointment of Limerick as Colorado State Historian. 

“This strengthened partnership between these two higher education agencies is a demonstration of Colorado’s collaborative spirit and is a testament to the work that state agencies can do together,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a prepared statement. 

These latest honors are added to a long list for Limerick, 64, a past winner of the MacArthur Fellowship — also known as the “Genius Grant.” 

Limerick, one of just nine CU faculty to receive that prestigious honor, was quick to dismiss the label of genius on a recent morning in her second floor office at Macky Auditorium — an impressive explosion of books, paper, and attendant scholarly chaos testifying to an overflowing professional agenda. 

A self-described “maverick,” Limerick said “I consider myself to have an operating system that makes it more comfortable for me to take on situations that more sensible people would flee.” 

Maybe it has something to do with being taught to read at age 2 by an older sister, leading to her consuming Perry Mason novels by the time she was in kindergarten, then skipping third grade. 

Perhaps it was the southern California native spending the “Summer of Love” in 1967 in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, commuting there each day in “ribbons and bells” from the nearby apartment of an older sister, with whom she was spending the summer between her junior and senior years of high school. 

Or it could be that Limerick’s admitted appetite for focused frenzy was honed through her service as Official Fool at Yale University where she secured her doctoral degree in 1980, her subsequent stint as Official Harvard Fool during her time as assistant professor of history (1980-1984), or her long tenure as Official Fool at CU, a title bestowed by then-CU President Gordon Gee in in 1987. 

Limerick is careful to distinguish between “small-f” fools, and “capital-F” fools — those who have sought the title, such as herself, versus “closet fools,” on whom the label is imposed by others. 

Whatever the chosen punctuation, Limerick in fact appears to be nobody’s fool. 

‘I was questioning orthodoxy’ 

In 1987 Limerick published “Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,” considered by peers to be among the most important works of scholarship in that field. 

It was hailed at the time of publication as the foundation of a new perspective on the history of the American west. Adherents to the perspective advanced by Limerick, The New York Times opined, “are blazing a pioneers’ trail toward an altered view of the moral status of America itself. The new historians question the very idea of the Western — and thus American -— success story.” 

The Times also said Limerick’s interpretation of the history of the American west represented a “tipping point of the moral scales to that unhappy point where national faults and imperfections seem to balance national virtues.” 

Reflecting on that time now, Limerick said, “In the late ’80s I was out in the world predicting a great renaissance in western American history, which had become kind of a shrunken field … and not very interesting, compared to other compelling other areas of history. I was trying to change that. And with some other excellent comrades, I think I did change that. ‘Legacy of Conquest’ was a big part of that.” 

An important point, she said, is that she was not alone. 

“I made all these statements in public about the renaissance and all these wonderful young scholars who were going to be turning this field around,” Limerick said, “and when I was making those statements, I thought, ‘I certainly hope this turns out to be true, because I will be looking really dumb.’ And it did turn out to be true … There’s a slew of people in their 40s, early 50s, who vindicated me.” 

“She has been a very important mentor to me and a whole generation of historians of the environment and historians of the American West,” said Sarah Elkind, Professor of History at San Diego State University. 

“She’s one of a just a few historians who have totally transformed the study of the American West and looked at the West not as a triumphant story of American progress, but looked at the West as a region that is complicated, that is unique as a region but also tied into national and international issues.” 

Limerick’s vision of American western history can be distilled, she said, to what she calls “the four C’s.” 

Continuity. The story of the West didn’t end tidily in 1890, as many historians long contended. 

Convergence. It’s not simply a story of white men marching westward. It’s people of all colors, coming from every direction — including the Native Americans who were here already. 

Conquest. The narrative of European colonialism and imperialism that remade so much of the globe didn’t exempt America. 

Finally, Complexity. Instead of clearly delineated “white hats” and “black hats,” she said, “The American West had the same level of moral complexity in its history as any other place on the planet.” 

“Only a fool in any and all senses of the word would have written ‘Legacy of Conquest’ before getting tenure,” said Limerick, who did receive tenure in 1987. “That was really a foolish, risk-courting thing to do, because I was questioning orthodoxy. The field of American history, it was a very set, Hoover dam. The concrete had cooled and settled into place. It wasn’t a structure that was going to change on its own.” 

Limerick’s scholarly accomplishments are such that her curriculum vitae runs 55 pages and her many distinctions include in 2001 winning CU’s Hazel Barnes Prize, the campus’ highest faculty prize for teaching. 

How to separate that from the woman who has donned white face and jester’s garb to parade around her campus each year on April 1 as CU’s Official Fool? 

Limerick doesn’t. 

“Anybody who knows anything about life, who has not been excessively protected from life, would know that humor and very serious things coexist. that humor and seriousness are fine with each other and have no reason to flee each other,” Limerick said. 

Her prominence and reputation at the university, and an ability to laugh at herself, are captured by a story she tells about a “Best of Boulder” feature in the Daily Camera that used to feature a “Best CU personality” category. 

“I used to do pretty well in that, but one year I did not get first place. I had narrowly lost to (CU mascot) Ralphie, and Ralphie was dead at the time,” she recalled. 

“So when I speak to public officials, if I want to earn a sense of comaraderie with them, “I say, I think I’m the only person who ever lost an election to a dead buffalo.” 

‘From time to time, something strikes me’ 

The rough notes for new chapters of history are already being sketched out by the headlines of today. 

That sense is heightened with some presidential candidates now urgently calling for the closing of American borders, putting broad sectors of the global population under unprecedented scrutiny and many people living in a state of fear. Limerick offers a historian’s perspective. 

“The phrase, ‘We have lost control of the border’ is shaky, and as an historical statement, in fact, it’s really not workable,” said Limerick. “I am not sure that anybody has ever had control of the border. If you say that you have lost your purse, and you never had a purse, that is going to bring a lot of people into confusion. 

“Ambitions to draw a line and make it an unbreachable border — my sense is that it would be hard to find places in history where that had worked out really well. And the places where it might have worked might have come at such a cost of human suffering and human misery and giant expenditures that it’s worth saying, ‘What’s the cost-benefit analysis on that achievement? When you do achieve an uncompromisable border, what have you compromised, to get that?'” 

The populist candidacy of Donald Trump, which sees the real estate magnate and first-time candidate leading the GOP field, is fueled in part by a dynamic with which Limerick has some familiarity. 

“Mr. Trump is tapping into a response by which people say, ‘Oh, he is not giving prepared remarks that his handlers gave to him after they had consulted many polls and conducted focus groups. There is a person who is saying something and he is not saying it because he has calculated and maneuvered himself into a performance.’ 

“So, I get that,” Limerick said. “When I’m giving a speech, I rarely use a script. I have notes, and it’s fairly clear to everyone in the room that from time to time, something strikes me. ‘Why is she going there? That seems unexpected.’ So I probably, as a public speaker, have profited myself from that. ‘That can’t be a calculated move, because nobody with any sense’ — so, it is back to the Fool project — ‘would say such a thing.” 

Limerick wants nothing to do with the policies Trump has espoused. She wrote a recent a column for the Denver Post, theorizing that Trump is “the standard bearer for the currently booming ‘Jerk Pride Movement,'” speaking for what she calculates to be the roughly 15 percent of the population who enjoy shouting “destructive and polarizing sentiments, and then, still shouting, congratulating themselves for their forthrightness.” 

Harkening back to her emboldening experience studying improvisational theater at the University of California Santa Cruz as an undergraduate, she believes “Donald Trump is actually following a calculated agenda and knows what he is doing. Because that’s what you do in theater. 

“I think we’re seeing somebody who has either taken improvisational theater classes, or learned the life lessons of improvisational theater classes — that you can just do something and a certain sector will say, ‘He should never have done that,’ and another sector would say, ‘Well, that’s why we like him.’ 

‘The public face of CU’ 

Limerick is lauded by peers as someone who is unafraid to venture outside her box and step into whole other rooms, to push a worthy line of inquiry further. 

In putting together a past program called “Sound and Noise in the National Parks,” she included as a featured speaker CU History Department colleague Scott Bruce, an expert on religion and culture in the early and central Middle Ages, feeling that his research could be relevant to the discussion. 

“I had never had the opportunity to share my research on medieval rationales for monastic silence with anyone but specialists in my field,” Bruce said. “I am indebted to Patty because the breadth of her vision saw a place for the wider (and contemporary) relevance of my research.” 

That unusual pairing made an impression on Valerio Ferme, associate dean for the Arts and Humanities at CU. 

“I think for someone who is as busy as she is, she also is very generous with her time,” Ferme said. “And I noticed that she does a lot of things for a lot of people. And she likes to bring people into her activities and into her events out of the blue.” 

Elizabeth Fenn, CU’s History Department chairwoman, “Professor Limerick has boundless energy and enthusiasm for her endeavors. She is the public face of CU.” 

Limerick has a historian’s long-view perspective on her own life, in which she sees a thread of continuity weaving seamlessly from a chance encounter with Doors lead vocalist Jim Morrison on San Francisco’s Haight Street almost 50 years ago, to interviewing Col. Mark Franklin (Ret.), chief of History and Legacy at the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration on stage at the American Historical Association’s 130th annual meeting, as she did in Atlanta on Friday. 

Both encounters, and much of what has come in between, have in common an inquisitiveness, a spirit of exploration applied to both the present day and all that has come before, that might provide context for, or understanding of, the lessons of tomorrow. 

“As state historian, I will continue as I have been doing for years here, trying to be a good cheerleader for how important historical perspective is and how society suffers if we go around in an amnesiac state,” Limerick said. 

“It doesn’t help an individual to have amnesia. And it doesn’t help society.”