Donald B. Cole

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for my history teacher and mentor, Donald Barnard Cole.  It was a wonderful service, filled with music and laughter, stories and tears.  I learned a great deal about Mr. Cole, and thought I would share here some of my own memories of him.

I first got to know Mr. Cole in the fall of 1973; he was my American history teacher that fall.  I was only sixteen, and Mr. Cole seemed impossibly old.  He was so old, he had been here at Exeter so long, that he could recall my father, when he was a student in the late 1940s.  I remember that winter of 1973, running on the upper wooden track of the cage, and teasing Mr. Cole a bit about his mincing gait and slow pace.  Now that I am impossibly old myself, and my gate and pace are not what they were, I sympathize with Mr. Cole, but at the time I thought him quaint.

American history, in those days, was taught at Exeter in two semesters, the first one running through the Civil War.  I remember only a few details about how Mr. Cole taught that course.  The first paper we had to research and write, if I recall, was about one of John Marshall’s cases.  That was the first time that I had read a legal case, opened the volumes of Supreme Court decisions in the library reference section.  It was an exciting experience:  dealing with the difficult vocabulary, realizing that each case had two sides, seeing that each case related to other cases, all in those solid thick volumes.  Mr. Cole wrote on my paper something like:  “you might think of becoming a lawyer.”  I suppose I did, because that is what I became.

The second paper, if I recall, could be on anything we wanted—as long as it related to Martin Van Buren.  Mr. Cole was at that time doing the research that would become Martin Van Buren and the American Political System, published by Princeton University Press in 1984.  I did not, at the time, realize how unusual it was for a high school history teacher to research and write and publish books.  It seemed, in a way, to make sense:  college professors, I knew, published books, and Exeter was sort of like a small college.  And it was also consistent with the way in which Mr. Cole taught us history:  if you want to know something, look it up.  And do not trust the first answer you find; question it, look behind it, dig deeper.

The third thing I remember about the course is that Mr. Cole knew the people involved in American history.  John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay:  for Mr. Cole these were not remote figures, they were people like us, with strengths and weaknesses.

I graduated from Exeter in 1975, and did not see Mr. Cole, I think, until we moved to Exeter in the late summer of 2008.  We lived, that year, in a small house on the edge of campus; Don and his wife Susan or “Tootie” lived in their own small house not far away.

I sought Don out, I suppose because I knew that he would be interested in my research into William Henry Seward.  He was interested in Seward, but also interested in our lives more generally:  he wanted to know what my wife Masami was teaching, how my children Clancey and Lydia liked Exeter, when and how I had lived in Hong Kong.  I was amazed to learn that Don had not only studied Asia, but studied Asia under John King Fairbank, one of my favorite authors on China.

That visit in the fall of 2008 was the first of many—perhaps fifteen or twenty over the course of five years—in which we talked mainly about history and politics.  I remember, in particular, how keen Don was for the election and the re-election of Barack Obama.  I supported John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and Don knew that, but we had polite discussions about the candidates and the issues.

When I had the first few chapters of Seward ready, I printed them out and brought them to Don.  I knew that he might or might not live to see the finished book, and I wanted him at least to read the material that would especially interest him, Seward’s relations with Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.  About a week later, Don called and said that he had a “few little comments” on the chapters, would I be interested in them?  I was, of course, so I stopped by the house again, and picked up the pages, almost every one of which had some small comment in Don’s neat handwriting.

Most of Don’s comments (I regret to report) were simple errors on my part:  spelling, grammar, dates.  He often noticed a few extra words that could be removed.  He thought I used, too often, the “first, second, third” construction; too much like a legal brief, he said.  He urged me to avoid legal words like “prior.”

Don’s larger comments were often questions.  He was fascinated, for example, by Thurlow Weed, how he formed and operated the Whig party in New York state, how he managed Seward’s political campaigns.  Did Weed, Don asked, have a machine like the political machine of Martin Van Buren?  Some of the sentences in the Seward book are direct responses to Don’s questions.  In other cases, I decided, the average reader did not need to know quite as much as Don wanted to know about some obscure person or political faction.

When I had the whole manuscript of Seward ready, I printed it out again and brought it to Don’s house.  As I hoped, he read through the whole thing, and gave it the same careful comments that he had given to the first few chapters.  Again, I regret to report, there were many minor errors on my part; and some larger ones, that he caught in his careful reading.

Don was keen to talk about my next book:  who would I tackle after Seward?  When I suggested a name, he would ask when the most recent biography had appeared, who was the author, what were its strengths and weaknesses.  Often, I would find, when I named a historian, such as John Garraty, as the author of the best biography of Henry Cabot Lodge, Don would say “oh yes, I knew John Garraty,” and tell me how he knew him.  (Garraty was one of the general editors of the twenty-four volumes of American National Biography, to which Don contributed, and which had a prominent place in his study.)

Don was also working, when I returned to Exeter in 2008, on his own book, Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System, published by Kansas University Press in 2009.  I was not, I fear, much help to him in this project, and I wish now that I had been.   I could have found a few newspaper articles for him, in the course of my work at the Library of Congress, or perhaps reviewed the manuscript.  He gave a great book talk at the Phillips Exeter library, linking his various books on Jackson and Van Buren and New Hampshire.  For Don, there was a Democratic line that ran right through from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama, and he talked about that line that night.

Even after the publication of the 1828 book, even though Don was approaching ninety, he did not stop researching.  He was working on George Bancroft and Edward Everett, two men who attended Exeter and then went on to distinguished academic and political careers.  On at least one occasion, I bumped into Don in the basement of the Exeter library; he was working on Everett and I was working on Seward.  He asked me, once, whether I agreed with the view that Everett played a critical role in the secession winter; that was the argument in a prior biography of Everett, but Don was doubtful.

Don did live to see my Seward book in print; he was one of the first people to whom I presented a signed copy.  As I wrote in the acknowledgment section:  “I am especially honored that Donald Cole, my history teacher at Exeter years ago, reviewed and commented on the entire manuscript.”  When I spoke at the Exeter Historical Society about the book, in the fall of 2012, Don was there in the audience.  I do not recall that he asked a question that night, but that was not because he had none to ask; it was more that he did not want to steal the spotlight.

I have read that heaven is a library, and for Don Cole in particular I am sure that it is a well-stocked library, that he is already delving into its riches.