WSU Department of History 1962–1992
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” — Jackie Robinson
Fifty years ago, I showed up at Washington State University wondering if I was smart enough to make it through the doctoral program in history. I knew I wanted to focus on the history of the West or the Pacific Northwest, and the first person I met was Dr. David H. Stratton. I quickly realized a couple of things about him. He was one of the nicest human beings I had ever met, including a sense of humor that was infectious. He also had a way of making me feel like I could really do this—get a PhD in history.
From that first encounter on, Dr. Stratton became one of the most important persons in my life. I had some physical issues that required me to drop out of the program for several years, but because of his encouragement, I was able to pick up right where I had left off. One of the truly brutal parts of a doctoral program is taking what the history department called the preliminary exams. You study forever, and never quite know if you have studied the right things for this brutal part of the program. About a month before the exams, the department sponsored a conference in which it brought in several outstanding historians. I let go of my studies for a day and went to the conference. At the end of the sessions, Dr. Stratton invited me to go with the group to dinner with the speakers. I said, no, I had to go back and spend the rest of the evening studying for these exams. He said, no you don’t, you need to take the night off. I took his advice, and the next morning I got up and decided I was doing the best I could do in my studies. If I passed, great! If I flunked, well at least I did my best. I passed and I attribute much of that to the fact that Dr. Stratton could see that I needed a clean break from studying at that moment.
Next came the dissertation. I was lucky because I had a job in history with the National Park Service that was waiting for me after the fall semester at WSU. I had done much of my research over the summer and was able to crank out the first chapter on my trusty typewriter. I gave it to Dr. Stratton, thinking it probably was the most brilliant piece ever written in the history of the world. Of course, it wasn’t brilliant, nor was it really dissertation material. Dr. Stratton said maybe like 10-20 percent was usable and that a dissertation was different than a term or seminar paper. From that point on, I had to write my dissertation while I was working fulltime, but Dr. Stratton was always encouraging. When I was stressed, he would say that for a violin, “the tautest strings play the most beautiful music.” Much of the time, I got the taut part, but not so much the beautiful music part. But, the encouragement helped me make it though and finish the dissertation.
Encouraging was one thing, but like in that first chapter I had written earlier, Dr. Stratton spent a tremendous amount of time correcting, suggesting, and editing such that by the end, my dissertation was close to something that could be published. And, indeed it was; several years later the University Press of Colorado published it, and most of the reviews were positive. Since then, I have frequently sent whatever I have written to Dr. Stratton for his advice and editing. It just hit me that now that he’s gone, I can’t send this piece to him.
Beyond being the most wonderful mentor anyone could ever have, Dr. Stratton became a very good friend. So much so, that he asked me to call him David. Something in me made that extremely difficult and I always felt like I needed to call him Professor Stratton out of my deep and abiding respect for him. One time, he asked me to accompany him to his hometown of Tucumcari, New Mexico. His father was ill, and he wanted me to go along for moral support. Clearly, he was very much in love with Tucumcari, so much so, that when he was 95 years old, he published the history of his hometown! He also wrote the definitive work on Albert B. Fall, who at the time was the only federal cabinet member convicted of a crime, which was connected to the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal.
With his books and numerous articles during his lifetime, his academic legacy will live on, but for me, the fact that he took me under his wing as a nervous, insecure graduate student and nourished me as a historian in my studies and career, I owe him a debt I will never be able to repay. Dr. David H. Stratton, I will miss you terribly.
Robert K. Sutton (’84 PhD History) is the retired chief historian of the National Park Service.