Photo illustration of Professor Walter LaFeber against a stylized world map background

‘LaFeber Posse’ Gears up to Honor Legendary Professor

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Posthumous festschrift and 2023 conference in NYC will celebrate eminent historian’s impact—on former students and worldwide

By Joe Wilensky

There is, perhaps, no Cornell faculty member more deserving of a festschrift than the late, legendary historian Walter LaFeber.

The German term—which translates as “feast writing”—refers to a collection of papers by multiple authors, written as a tribute to a noted scholar.

Typically created upon retirement and presented at a conference or symposium, it celebrates the academic’s long career, research contributions, and impact on former students and society at large.

Walter LaFeber lectures in front of a blackboard
The typical LaFeber lecture: a brief outline and no notes. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

For LaFeber—who taught on the Hill for nearly a half century (from 1959–2004) and who passed away at age 87 in 2021—that impact was immense.

His famed lectures were events, attended by hundreds of thousands of students over the years. He influenced decades of thought leaders in foreign affairs, diplomacy, and academia—authoring or co-authoring 20 books (including the well-known textbook The American Age) and appearing regularly in the media, offering a historian’s insight on U.S. global relations.

Walter LaFeber with a student in 1973
With a student in 1973. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

In late October, a cadre of just over a dozen of LaFeber’s former students—referring to themselves fondly as the “LaFeber posse”—gathered on the Ithaca campus to workshop their essays and chapters for the festschrift, to be published by Cornell University Press and which will also be available as an open-access ebook.

They also developed plans for a companion conference, which is set for next fall (October 27–29, 2023) on the Cornell Tech campus in New York City and will be open to the public.

Its title—“Thinking Otherwise: Walter LaFeber and American Foreign Relations in a Changing World”—derives from a phrase, attributed to Cornell historian Carl Becker, that LaFeber liked to cite: “A professor is someone who thinks otherwise.”

The festschrift and conference (for which details will be forthcoming) will occur in what would have been LaFeber’s 90th birthday year, as well as the 60th anniversary of the publication of his first book, The New Empire.

“When Walt died, a number of us got together and started talking about what we could do to memorialize the individual who had been our favorite teacher,” says Richard Immerman ’71, an emeritus professor of history at Temple University. “He was all of our favorite, and that in itself was really quite exceptional—but so was he.”

He was all of our favorite, and that in itself was really quite exceptional—but so was he.

Richard Immerman ’71

Andrew Tisch ’71—co-chair of Loews Corp., a philanthropist, and an emeritus University trustee—recalls how he first discovered LaFeber’s foreign policy course as an undergraduate. He was having coffee with a friend, who quickly finished and told Tisch he was “going to Walt.”

“It wasn’t, ‘I’m going to hear Professor LaFeber,’” Tisch recalls. “It was just, ‘I’m going to Walt.’ I said, ‘What’s Walt?’”

Tisch ended up tagging along, and was hooked. Even though he was a Hotelie with a full schedule and couldn’t transfer into the class, Tisch ended up auditing both semesters.

For decades, that course packed auditoriums on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and—amazingly—Saturdays.

With an outline of the lecture on a blackboard behind him, LaFeber would speak without notes, bringing to life that day’s journey through U.S. history, influence, and foreign relations. Each session typically ended with a standing ovation.

Evan Stewart ’74 with LaFeber at a Cornell Commencement
At Commencement, with former student Evan Stewart ’74, JD ’77. (Provided)

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It was such a draw that students often brought their weekend guests—whether visiting parents or significant others—to the Saturday morning lectures.

Tisch notes, only half in jest, that LaFeber’s class probably nurtured quite a few romances: “The great pickup line was, ‘Do you want to stay over and go hear Walt tomorrow?’”

Immerman, for one, has a theory about the course’s massive enrollment in the ’60s and ’70s.

“It was the middle of the Vietnam War,” he says. “We all wanted to learn about foreign policy.”

Adds Tisch: “The world was going to hell, and we wanted to understand why.”

It wasn’t, ‘I’m going to hear Professor LaFeber.’ It was just, ‘I’m going to Walt.’

Andrew Tisch ’71

Several of LaFeber’s students went on to become noted figures in U.S. foreign policy, including the late Sandy Berger ’67 (national security adviser to President Bill Clinton), Stephen Hadley ’69 (national security adviser to President George W. Bush), Eric Edelman ’72 (former ambassador to Turkey and undersecretary of defense), and Tom Downey ’70 (a former longtime member of Congress).

For the U.S. bicentennial year in 1976, Cornell President Dale Corson broke with tradition by asking LaFeber to deliver the Commencement address to that year’s graduates.

And in the days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President Hunter Rawlings III asked him to speak at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, held on the Arts Quad with some 12,000 people in attendance.

Walter LaFeber chats with students
Active, well into retirement. (Cornell University)

Tisch notes that LaFeber’s influence went far beyond the relatively small number of his students who went into careers in government or foreign policy.

“I represent the other 98 percent,” he says. “It gave me a lifelong passion for understanding government, governance, and diplomacy.”

Adds Immerman: “Walt LaFeber changed our lives.”

In 2002, Tisch and his brother (James Tisch ’75) endowed a professorship in their names, aimed at keeping senior faculty in the classroom even beyond retirement. LaFeber, its inspiration, was also its first recipient.

(After LaFeber's death, Tisch and his wife gave a gift to name a professorship in his honor in Arts & Sciences; it’s currently held by Tom Pepinsky.)

LaFeber gave a farewell lecture in 2006—packing the Beacon Theatre in New York City.

Walt LaFeber addresses the crowd at the Beacon Theatre in 2006
Delivering his farewell lecture in NYC. (Cornell University)

Nearly 3,000 alumni, faculty, and friends attended his talk, “A Half-Century of Friends, Foreign Policy, and Great Losers.”

It was delivered, of course, without notes.

Editor’s note: A tribute website, an online archive, and an oral history project are also in the works. For more information, or to share memories of LaFeber, email Richard Immerman ’71 or Doug Little, PhD ’78.

Top: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published December 6, 2022


Comments

  1. David Green, Class of 1962

    Thank you for this article. I have the honor and the responsibility of being Walt’s undergraduate Honors B.A. (1962) as well as his first Ph.D. (1967). Should you wish to publish it, I can email you a group photograph of the 14 of us who are active members of the LaFeber posse. We are all looking forward to the conference next fall and encourage Cornellians of all ages to attend.

  2. Susan Harrison Berger, Class of 1968

    Thank you so much! Sandy and I loved him!

  3. Rob Hellman, Class of 1976

    Sign me up! I was one of the faithful who never missed a Saturday lecture during three courses I took with Walt. Walt was not my advisor, but he was a great resource when I was choosing graduate schools. He was always someone I visited with when I was on campus and he made time for my son and daughter when they had high school history projects and then when they attended Cornell. Not just a legendary teacher, but a remarkable person.

  4. Joanne Florino

    I was lucky to be Walt LaFeber’s teaching assistant for both the full-year foreign policy course and one freshman seminar with the memorable Class of ‘77. You all know who you are 🙂 He was a marvel, and I wish more Cornellians had crossed his path. For those of us who did, he remains a model professor – brilliant and always approachable.

  5. Douglas Johnson, Class of 1978

    Walt LaFeber’s lectures on American foreign policy are in the Pantheon of great Cornell courses I took as an undergrad, together with Carl Sagan’s Astro 102, Ted Lowi, Irving Younger and a few others. He really made history come alive. All without notes (including reciting quotations verbatim).

  6. John H Bruns, Class of 1967

    Although I was an ILR student, I satisfied my strong interests in history and politics by using most of my electives taking government courses in A&S. Thankfully, I took Professor Lafeber’s two semester course in The History of American Foreign Policy.
    In addition to loving the course, I have two distinct recollections. The first is sitting in class as the Professor lectured on the Viet Nam War period in the spring of 1966. He covering the roles of current US government leaders including Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Sitting about 10 rows in front of me was the Secretary’s son, Rich Rusk.
    The second is sitting in the airport bar having a yard of beer with fraternity brother and Cornell basketball captain, Blaine Aston. A plane lands and among the passengers is the Professor. The next thing we know he has joined us at the bar and we are chatting away like long time friends. This speaks to Walter Lafeber’s approachability and appeal.

  7. Terry McKeegan Davis, Class of 1968

    Thank you for this article. I have such fond memories of Professor LaFeber and took his American Foreign Policy two semester history course in 65-66. He always ended his lecture with a quote written on a 3×5 card that he took out of his suit pocket, that perfectly tied up his lecture. He was brilliant and so kind.
    I cried when he passed on in 2021.

  8. Richard D. Tunick, Class of 1967

    Professor LaFeber’s course was a highlight of my Cornell education.The man was even more impressive than the professor, not just brilliant and capable of sharing complex ideas and insights in a readily understandable manner, but also approachable, personable, relatable, caring, and genuine. A Cornell treasure for all of us to cherish for all times.

  9. Alexandra (Sandy) Shecket Korros, Class of 1966

    Walt was the most important influence on me as a history major. He encouraged my applications to grad school, supervised my senior thesis, taught me about how to write (history didn’t happen to, it happened, write in active voice) and served as my model when I began to teach. The article mentions that he did not use notes, I recall how he pulled an index card out of his pocket and read an appropriate quote and then put it down on as he lectured. When I started teaching, I followed his example of putting an outline on the board. I discovered that the outline kept my lecture on track so that I did not have to consult notes. As much as it helped me as an undergrad to follow the lectures, I realized as a teacher, that with the outline on the board, I did not get sidetracked while answering a question.
    When I was applying to grad school, Walt always had his door open to me. He told me to see him in the Olin Stacks office if I needed something. In the years following graduation, we never lost touch. The last time I saw him was in 2016 at our fiftieth reunion, when he found the time to have drinks with me and my husband.
    My favorite comment on a paper (I took three courses with Walt) was when he insisted that I write a paper on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I hesitated because I told him that we did not have enough information, after all, it was 1966, the best I could do was to follow the press information. The paper came back with an A- and the comment–“you were right, it was too early to find primary source material outside of the press, I should have let you research the topic you wanted to pursue.” I still have that paper. I have been fortunate to study with some of the finest historians in my field (Russian history), but Walt will always be the professor who taught me how to be an historian. May his memory be for a blessing.

    • Susan Maldon Stregack, Class of 1966

      Sandy, your memories of, and tribute to Walter LaFeber are beautifully written.

  10. Susan Mascette Brandt, Class of 1968

    Although I was a Gov major and not a History major, Prof. LaFeber was by far my favorite professor, and I took all of his classes. We were always stunned by how he could give such a brilliant, thoughtful, interesting, organized lecture with no notes! Each lecture, we’d look for the slow move to his jacket pocket for the 3×5 card with the direct quote he wanted to share with us – his only note! Prof. LaFeber was the gem that Cornell gave me.

    • Ken Levine, Class of 1969

      Susan is right. I also was government major, class of ’69 and LaFeber was the best teacher I ever had, by far–high schoool, college, law school anywhere!

  11. Linda Fieldman Robbins, Class of 1973

    I could not leave Cornell without taking a Walt class! I audited (yes, voluntarily attending T,Thursdays and early Saturdays!) and loved his lectures. I was a math major and normally history was not my passion – however, he made history come alive.

  12. Richard Krochalis, Class of 1972

    As a Navy ROTC student at Cornell during the Vietnam war, we were required to take Professor LaFeber’s two semester history of American Foreign Relations class to supplement our understanding of history as future military leaders. As an engineer, it was certainly my favorite class and represented another parallel requirement of the College of Engineering—that is, to take one liberal elective per semester so we could get an broad exposure to society beyond the Engineering Quad. Walt’s legendary story-telling brought history to life so much that like you felt he was “in the room” at the time and was recounting all those insights of American politicians and diplomats to all of us.

  13. Steve Bienstock, Class of 1972

    Walt was my advisor and my friend. Meeting for lunch whenever I was in Ithaca over the years, our friendship continued until his passing, and he graciously shared his life with both of my sons when they were at Cornell. The description of his Saturday class is spot-on. Even on Big Weekends, his lecture was packed, as we all brought our dates. Bright, insightful, humble…there aren’t enough words to describe him. He is deeply missed. Please let me know when the October plans jell.

  14. Lonnie Hanauer, Class of 1956

    I graduated in 1956 (plus ’60 MD) which was before LaFeber’s time but my daughter Amy took his course and told me and my wife to take a CAU “course” he taught one summer. So we did. I remember the wonderful, if only for a week, lectures which were a source of knowledge but also amazement because of their organization and exact finishing time.

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