After five decades, professor Bill Fowler—Northeastern’s great storyteller—retires

Historians in the News
tags: Bill Fowler, Northeastern

Fowler has been part of the Northeastern family for 55 years, beginning as an undergraduate student and then as an alumnus, professor of history, and administrator. In a few hours, he’ll become professor emeritus.

“This is a great university,” he says of Northeastern in 2017. “There is no question about that. When I arrived here in 1962, it was also a great university. I came here as a freshman and I received a wonderful education from a dedicated faculty who held me to very high standards, who taught me well, who supported me and mentored me. I owe a great deal to them in my career success.”

Much has changed since his days as a Northeastern student. “We were white bricks and a gravel parking lot,” he says. He points to everything from new buildings and facilities to a much more diverse student body. Yet, throughout these years two things haven’t changed, two “foundation stones” he says were present in 1962 and are present today: strong faculty and teaching, and experiential education. He would now add “global” as the third stone in the foundation. Taking Northeastern to the next level, the global level for experiential education and research, is President Joseph E. Aoun’s “greatest triumph,” he says.

For Fowler, LA’67, H’00, teaching and interacting with students—particularly undergraduates—have made the biggest impact on him during his time at Northeastern. “Every time I’ve walked into a classroom, for any class, it was always a new experience,” he says. “There were new questions. There were new students. It was always new, never boring, always exciting, and always challenging.”

He underscores the value of experiential education and regularly tells his students to embrace co-op and go abroad to get out of their comfort zones. Fowler would know; he says his own co-op experiences as a student shaped his career path and provided key life lessons.

In the 1960s, he worked multiple co-ops at the National Archives, both in Washington and Boston. In the nation’s capital, he worked across the Potomac River at a federal records center in Alexandria, Virginia—a warehouse that formerly served as a World War I torpedo plant. Part of his job involved picking up federal documents from Capitol Hill—many of which would ultimately be disposed of—and bringing back and sorting through them. He recalls one particularly memorable moment in 1963 when he was collecting records from Sen. George McGovern’s office, and the South Dakota senator and historian took time to thank him and ask him about his co-op job. “It was a very gracious moment,” Fowler says.

Fowler’s co-op at the National Archives in Boston, in fall 1963, is also etched in his mind. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, Fowler was tasked with helping with the transfer of Kennedy’s papers and memorabilia from the White House to a federal records warehouse in Waltham, Massachusetts. “That was a moment in which people of my generation remember exactly where they were when it happened,” he says of Kennedy’s death.

His co-ops at the National Archives taught him several important history lessons, notably the importance of saving documents. “History is written from documents. You need evidence, evidence, evidence.” He also realized the vital role of archivists and librarians in preserving documents and providing the public with access to them. ...

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