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Remembering BVU Historian Dr William Cumberland

November 18, 2021 9:53am

(by Tim Gallagher)

Dr. William H. Cumberland, Buena Vista University Professor of History Emeritus and BVU historian, died on Nov. 8th in Onalaska, Wisc. A memorial service to celebrate his life takes place at 2pm this Saturday, November 20th at Willowbrook Cooperative in Winona, Minnesota.

Cumberland served as Professor of History at BVU from 1958 to 1991. His comprehensive “History of Buena Vista University” enjoyed three published editions: in 1966, 1991, and 2006.

“Dr. Cumberland devoted his career to Buena Vista University, researching and preserving the history of the institution while simultaneously encouraging thousands of students through his example, his insight, his thorough command of history, and the ways in which he worked to reach students,” says President Brian Lenzmeier. “In retirement, his love for BVU and its people carried on as he relentlessly pored over records, correspondences, and newspaper accounts in his quest to accurately record and communicate how BVU advanced, and, just as significantly, how BVU’s stewards, its faculty, staff, students, and benefactors worked to achieve their shared visions.”

Lenzmeier noted that Cumberland’s accounts of BVU history served to inspire, humble, and motivate him as he guided the institution through the rigors of a pandemic, the likes of which the world had not seen in a century. (It should be noted that Cumberland was also an expert who wrote extensively on the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.)

“Largely because of Dr. Cumberland’s devotion to BVU, we can communicate with confidence on the resiliency our campus community has demonstrated in past and recent generations,” Lenzmeier says. “His work in detailing our history continues to inspire us as we adapt to serve and meet the needs of students and our communities.”

Cumberland, of Onalaska, was born in Urbana, Iowa, on June 14, 1929, the son of Roscoe and Clida Cumberland. As a boy he developed a life-long love of history when he discovered his grandmother’s history books. After graduating from Urbana High School in 1947, he earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Dubuque, where he also honed his love of writing by covering sports for the college newspaper.

He continued at the University of Iowa, where he earned his master’s in 1953 and his Ph.D. in 1958. That year, as a 29-year-old, Cumberland headed west and began his 34-year career as Professor of History at BVU, working tirelessly for the institution he loved, serving as chair of the School of Social Science, Philosophy, and Religion for more than 20 years. Known for his fairness, keen wit, and advocacy for higher education, he made a difference in the lives of students, as attested to by the number of students who kept in touch with him throughout his life.

“For 34 years, Dr. Bill Cumberland was the soul of the institution,” says Dr. Paul Russell, Professor of Economics Emeritus and former Dean of the Harold Walter Siebens School of Business. “He was the most cautionary optimist the world ever knew. A professor would want to change something at BVU, or overturn something the institution had been doing, a part of its history, which Bill might be opposed to. And then Bill would talk about it with the professor, and he’d end up giving the professor all the support they needed.”

Ultimately, Russell said, Cumberland could convince the leader of an initiative to gently tap the brakes while encouraging and considering other points of view. In the end, the approach yielded greater collaboration.

“He was a great professor and so adept at dealing with people,” Russell says. “He put together all that we know about BVU in his histories. And, he knew exactly how to get things done.”

Cumberland, a philanthropic supporter of BVU for years, is one-half the namesake of the Order of Cumberland and Tollefson, which recognizes highly regarded long-serving faculty members. He served on the committee that helped plan the construction of Ballou Library in 1962. He also served on the “Committee for the Future” convened by then-President Keith G. Briscoe at the onset of his Presidency.

The author of several books, more than 20 articles, and numerous book reviews, Cumberland wrote pioneering studies on Iowa history, including a biography of the mayor of Sioux City, Wallace M. Short, which was used as a text in history courses at Iowa State University, as well as articles on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more.

A life-long sports fans, he was a dedicated follower of the Iowa Hawkeyes and St. Louis Cardinals.

He is survived by his wife, Ingrid, whom he married in 1959, and their three children, Lawrence, Erich and Debra (spouse Kim Vogt), and a grand-dog, Abby.

The family kindly requests that gifts in remembrance of Bill can be made to the Dr. William & Ingrid Cumberland History & Archival Research Fund at Buena Vista University, https://support.bvu.edu/make-a-gift.