President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on February 25, 2023:
With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Thomas Harold Blackburn, the Centennial Professor Emeritus of English Literature, died peacefully in Media, Pa., on February 16. He was 90.
Tom, who served on the faculty for 40 years, is remembered as much for his passion for teaching Milton and Shakespeare as for his willingness to take on any role or initiative he thought would benefit students and the community.
Tom was predeceased by Ann, his wife of nearly 57 years and a longtime College staff member who retired from McCabe Library in 1995 and died in 2020. He is survived by their sons, Adam and Ben, and three grandchildren. Plans for a memorial will be shared when they are available. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations in Tom’s memory to Philabundance.
I invite you to read more below about Tom and his many lasting contributions to our community.
In Honor of Professor Emeritus of English Literature Tom Blackburn
Thomas H. Blackburn, the Centennial Professor Emeritus of English Literature, died Thursday, Feb. 16, at age 90. With his passing, Swarthmore has lost an inspiring teacher and scholar and a tireless and devoted champion.
“Tom possessed some rare and precious gifts,” says Associate Professor and Chair of English Literature Eric Song. “He had the ability to make intellectual work seriously fun, to be incisive in thought, and unflaggingly generous. As a teacher and mentor, Tom worked with students not just to develop their skills as thinkers and writers, but also to nurture a shared confidence in their ability to enhance the community around them.”
“My appreciative memories from several decades of colleagueship with Tom evoke both his versatility and his consistency,” says Provost Emerita Jennie Keith. “He was versatile in the ways he served the College and consistent in his support for those in challenging roles at Swarthmore.”
“Tom will be remembered for what he was, the best that Swarthmore is all about,” says Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Steven Piker. “In the Swarthmore world, Tom was truly a Renaissance man, deeply and creatively into so much, unfailingly fostering engagement from those he was with, and withal, warmly appreciative of others. A true Friend for all of us.”
Blackburn was born and raised in Teaneck, N.J. After high school, he excelled at Amherst College, where he lettered in three sports, was elected co-president of the Class of 1954, awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude with a B.A. in English. At Jesus College, Oxford University, he earned another B.A. and an M.A. before completing his Ph.D. in English at Stanford University.
Blackburn taught briefly at Stanford and Bryn Mawr College before joining Swarthmore’s faculty in 1961 to teach Milton and early English literature. He received support for his work, including on the relationship between history and literature during the Renaissance, from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Folger Shakespeare Library, among others.
“His Honors seminars on Shakespeare and Milton introduced generations of students to the pleasures of reading and critical research,” says Professor of English Literature Nora Johnson. “He never lost the sense that one of the greatest joys in this profession is the opportunity to think through a text with a group of great students.”
As an expert in Renaissance literature, Blackburn published widely about Shakespeare and Milton, as well as about less canonical writers, such as the English historian and poet Edmund Bolton.
Focusing on Bolton “gave Tom a venue for reflecting on some tensions between the uses of poetry and the uses of history,” Johnson says. Those tensions, she adds, would go on to become “central questions in the ‘historical turn’ in literary studies.”
Offering advice and support to younger colleagues came naturally to Blackburn. “Tom was a great friend and mentor to me,” says Craig Williamson, the Alfred H. and Peggi Bloom Professor of English Literature. “To borrow a line from an elegy in Beowulf, ‘He gave me treasures, tokens of his trust.’"
In 1985, Blackburn successfully piloted the College’s Writing Associates Program, his commitment to supporting students’ writerly interests also serving as a force for writing on campus. He also chose the name, determining that “associate” best connoted a peer relationship between students. For 15 years he led and directed the program, now a national model.
“Tom was a pioneer for the College in support of faculty across the disciplines in integrating writing into the curriculum,” says Tom Stephenson, the James H. Hammons Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “He was a tireless advocate for the program and the curricular structures that supported it, and pushed those of us in the natural sciences to find creative ways to integrate writing into our curricula.”
”I remember Tom's own careful articulation of the ways in which the subordination of one clause to another in a sentence requires the same work as the subordination of one idea to another in an argument,” says Betsy Bolton, the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature. “Wrestling with grammar and syntax is always also a wrestling with logic, implication, and progression.”
As Blackburn once said, “For Milton, to write badly is a sin against the gift of reason itself.” Of the Writing Associates program: “Our aim was never better papers, but better writing.”
Blackburn further distinguished himself in service to the institution, as chair of his department and on committees that examined Black studies and student life, among other areas. But his most significant service was as dean of students — the first to report to the president.
Before Blackburn took on the role, women and men had separate deans. When he accepted the expanded position in 1975, which he held for six years rather than the traditional five at the time, his responsibilities included not just academic advising and student life, but also admissions, financial aid, and athletics.
“His was a voice of heightened common sense,” says Philip Weinstein, the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus of English Literature, “a shrewd capacity to grasp which issues mattered more and which mattered less as the College moved from the turbulent 1960s into the new century.”
As dean, Blackburn convened a committee to study and improve Black student enrollment. He reorganized the Dean’s Office and revamped the counseling services then offered by the Health Center. He also initiated a form of institutional self-evaluation by enlisting more than three dozen administrators to interview about 10 seniors each in individual hourlong sessions.
A lifelong athlete, Blackburn was long considered Athletics’ biggest booster among the faculty. His stalwart support of student-athletes included helping coach and advise lacrosse, football, wrestling, and track (the latter three his own college sports, along with rugby at Oxford), and regularly showing up to a variety of varsity, intramural, and recreational events.
Blackburn was also concerned with equity between the men’s and women’s physical education programs. As dean, he oversaw a reorganization of the College’s separate programs for men and women into a single, unified department. He also testified on behalf of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in its federal antitrust suit against the NCAA over the latter’s attempt to administer women’s intercollegiate sports.
“He supported the College’s athletic mission — a lonelier and more courageous role than one might imagine,” Weinstein says.
“Working with students in other areas — whether it’s athletics or drama — helps you understand what’s going on with them academically,” Blackburn once said. “It’s one of the traditional ideals of the liberal arts college: to understand the whole persona of a student, not just the intellectual aspect.”
Blackburn’s service to the College continued after his term as dean ended. He was an early computer enthusiast, teaching introductory computer courses to faculty and staff. He served on committees that reviewed the curriculum and that selected faculty members to serve as associate deans. In the early 1990s, he helped reevaluate the Honors Program, now celebrating 100 years, to give students and faculty more flexibility for off-campus study, independent research in the sciences, and interdisciplinary concentrations. In 2000, he served on an ad hoc committee to again review the role of Athletics, and was deeply disappointed in the decision to eliminate football and wrestling.
Blackburn also frequently contributed to the College’s social life. He and his wife Ann regularly hosted students and colleagues in their home near campus. He taught a course on science fiction and once hosted a campus dinner for Ursula Le Guin. In 1996, he even joined the faculty’s College Bowl team that lost to students, 595-330. “I felt [our] team earned a moral victory,” he told The Phoenix, “by not preventing the students from doubling our score.”
"In all my years at Swarthmore, I never met anyone who loved the College as much as Tom,” says Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor Emeritus of Social Theory and Social Action. “He served many roles in his long career, all of them with devotion to Swarthmore."
Blackburn’s service to his community extended beyond campus. For several years and while still on the faculty, he served on Swarthmore’s Borough Council, including as president.
“Swarthmore faculty, by and large, do not take part in local government,” says Professor of Economics Mark Kuperberg, who Blackburn recruited to run for Council when he stepped down in 1993. “Tom, therefore, was unusual in his commitment to giving back to the community in this way.”
“Tom never made big speeches on behalf of his values, yet he never ceased to labor on behalf of the College’s best interests,” Weinstein says. “A big man who took delight in the play of the body as well as the reaches of the mind, Tom was capable of great finesse and intricate distinctions. His stewardship, on several fronts, sustained and enriched Swarthmore College, making it a better place.”
Blackburn did give one speech, when he retired from full-time teaching. In his Baccalaureate address to the Class of 2000, he turned to Milton, to compare the author’s idea of education to the graduates’ experiences, and to Shakespeare.
“To my mind, the great soliloquies by Shakespeare, like Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ … remind us that we must inevitably make choices in a universe where the consequences of those choices are always hidden in the future,” Blackburn said. “I’m grateful that I was chosen to go to Oxford, and [grateful] to meet there my best choice ever, Ann, who became my wife. ... Only in that context does my choice to teach at Swarthmore come second.”