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Longtime history professor dies at 73

Leo Ribuffo, a longtime history professor, died unexpectedly Tuesday of an unknown cause.

Updated: Dec. 3, 2018 at 11:45 a.m.

Leo Ribuffo, a longtime history professor, died unexpectedly Tuesday of an unknown cause. He was 73.

Ribuffo began teaching at GW in 1973 and spent much of his professional career working in the history department. He taught courses on conservatism and American presidencies during his tenure and, this semester, was teaching an undergraduate class on U.S. History since 1945 and a graduate seminar on Readings and Research in U.S. History. He was scheduled to teach two classes in the spring.

Ribuffo’s colleagues and former students said he was one of the history department’s “pillars” and will be remembered for his sense of humor, bright intellect and genuine passion for students and history.

In his most recent Facebook post, dated Oct. 29, Ribuffo recounted appearing “as a walking/talking bit of material culture” for a guest lecture he recently hosted. He can be seen wearing an outfit that would have been considered “college cool” in the early 1960s: tan chinos, a lemon yellow shirt and an original pin from the 1967 March on the Pentagon.

Ribuffo grew up in Bergen County, N.J. and received a bachelor’s degree in history from Rutgers University in 1966 and a doctorate in American studies from Yale University in 1972. He taught history at Bucknell University and Yale University before coming to GW, faculty said.

Paul Wahlbeck, the interim dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said Ribuffo’s tenure at GW spanned more than four decades, during which he wrote award-winning books and served as an “engaged” mentor to students. He said Ribuffo will be “greatly” missed by those whose lives he touched.

“We are deeply saddened by the news of Leo’s passing,” Wahlbeck said. “He was an exceptional scholar of 20th century American history, a respected colleague and, for many of us at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, a dear friend.”

Jennifer Bertolet, a professorial lecturer in history and one of Ribuffo’s former students, said she first met Ribuffo while pursuing her master’s degree, and he later became her dissertation adviser when she was getting her doctorate.

“Behind his thinly veiled gruff exterior, I found a man of brilliant intellect, unwavering loyalty and tremendous compassion,” Bertolet said. “Students who scratched through that curmudgeonly exterior as I did, in conversation or a visit to his office, found a kind and caring professor with a deep commitment to teaching, learning and his students.”

She said Ribuffo’s “light lives on in the many historians like myself that he nurtured and mentored.”

Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University and one of Ribuffo’s former students, said he emailed Ribuffo about once a week since graduating in 2006, discussing topics ranging from mutual friends to politics.

“Every time I’d come back, I make sure to meet up with Leo, and we would go out for drinks and we’d stay out late and he’d give us some whiskey and just talk about the world,” Hartman said.

He said Ribuffo advised about 31 doctoral dissertations at GW, adding that Ribuffo gave him five single-spaced pages of typed feedback on the first draft of his own dissertation.

“I remember being crushed for about 24 hours but then recognized that he did this because he cared and wanted me to be better,” Hartman said.

Edward Berkowitz, a professor of history and of public policy and public administration, said Ribuffo frequently lectured in his classes, but was able to captivate his students in a way that’s “kind of a lost art these days.” He said Ribuffo’s graduate students were “absolutely devoted to him.”

“He had a charismatic personality, and people would come to see him during office hours and he would talk to them,” Berkowitz said. “He really helped to spur people with intellectual curiosity about things – a real academic, in that sense.”

Ribuffo was an award-winning author of three books on topics about American politics, the Protestant far-right and Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Berkowitz said that both Ribuffo’s office and house on Irving Street in Northwest D.C. were filled with thousands of books and papers. He was an “evening person” who would often stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. and enjoyed Cuban cigars, records and comfort food, Berkowitz said.

Denver Brunsman, an associate professor of history, said Ribuffo was “synonymous” with the history department and would often keep in touch with students for years after they left GW.

Brunsman said outside Ribuffo’s office, there is a photo of the professor with Alec Baldwin, an actor, alumnus and one of Ribuffo’s former students. The photo is captioned, “Study with Leo Ribuffo and become a star!”

“The great thing is that, in Leo’s eyes, so many of his students were stars,” he said.

Ribuffo is survived by his half-sister, Mary Ann Ribuffo.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Ribuffo was not teaching any courses this semester. He was teaching two. We regret this error.

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