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  November 3, 2003

Microhistorian Joins History Department
As First Draper Chair

A scholar who has long been interested in microhistory - the practice of studying an era through the lives of ordinary people - has joined the University's history department as the first James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History.

Robert A. Gross, a distinguished professor at The College of William and Mary since 1988, joined the UConn community last month. He will begin teaching next semester.

Image: Robert Gross

Robert Gross, professor of history, joined the University this semester as the first Draper Chair-holder.

Photo by Peter Morenus

"I was enormously impressed with the department and the University," he says, recalling visits to campus earlier in the year. "And I'm impressed with the ambition people have for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences."

Pioneering Work
Altina Waller, chair of the history department, says Gross will be a significant addition to the department.

"Professor Gross is extremely well known in the field for his pioneering work in social history, especially regarding Concord and Lexington," she says. She expects that his being here will attract more students who are interested in early American history and the revolution.

Gross fits well with the history department's priorities, both for his studies in early American history, long a departmental strength, and because he specializes in microhistory, a research method in which several other UConn history professors are also expert.

"I've known several UConn professors for some time," Gross said. "Dick and Irene Brown, Altina Waller, and Cornelia Dayton, among others.

I'm looking forward to working with them."

A Generous Gift
Gross also is eager to work with other faculty to develop major conferences and seminars, something he will be able to do thanks to a gift from James Draper and his late wife Shirley, UConn alumni who donated $1.5 million to establish the chair.

"My wife was particularly interested in history, especially Colonial history," James Draper said when the gift was announced in February 2001. "We've always lived in an old home, we've always had antiques, and we've always belonged to the Historical Society." The Drapers graduated from UConn in 1941. Shirley Draper died in 2000.

Gross specializes in the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War, and recently wrote an afterword for the 25th anniversary edition of his 1977 book, The Minutemen and Their World. The book, about the armed civilians who fought the British during the revolution and were named Minutemen because they were allegedly ready to fight in a minute, won the 1977 Bancroft Prize for outstanding scholarship in history.

Gross expects to publish his latest book, The Transcendentalists and Their World, by the end of the academic year. The work focuses on the relationship between writers Emerson and Thoreau and the Concord community in which they lived and wrote.

History of Book Publishing
Gross also has done extensive research on the history of printing and publishing. He plans to lead a graduate seminar next semester on "The History of the Book," which will examine the history of publishing in Britain and Europe as well as in North America.

The endowed portion of the Draper gift will be used for conferences, seminars, scholarships for graduate students, graduate student research, and Gross's research. Waller says it could also be used to enhance "the enterprise of researching early American history at UConn."

Being close to his roots, literally and scholastically, helped convince Gross that UConn was the place for him to be.

"I wouldn't have gone just anywhere," he says. "But the Draper Chair is an extraordinary opportunity to continue my work, to foster activities that have long interested me."

He has history of his own in New England, having grown up in Bridgeport and having spent many months in the region researching Concord, Lexington, early American books, and the Minutemen.

While at William & Mary - located in the heart of Williamsburg, Va., a famous Colonial-era town - Gross served as a professor and director of the American studies program from 1988-1998; and as the Forrest D. Murden Jr. professor of history and American Studies since 1992. Before moving to Virginia, he held posts in American history at Amherst College and at the University of Sussex, Brighton, England. He was also a visiting professor at several universities.

Gross earned his master's degree and doctorate from Columbia University, and his bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He has received many fellowships and awards, and authored several books and dozens of articles.