Keith Hitchins
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Keith Hitchins

Thursday, April 2nd, 1931 - Sunday, November 1st, 2020

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Keith Arnold Hitchins, 89, passed away on November 1, 2020, at the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Illinois. Best known simply as Keith Hitchins or Professor Keith Hitchins, he was an internationally honored historian of Romania but also of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, and many Asian countries. From 1967 until his retirement in 2019, he was Professor of East European History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Hitchins was born in Schenectady, New York, to H. Arnold Hitchins, commercial artist and writer of business advertisements, and Lillian Turrian Hitchins, stenographer. Arnold's ancestry was English (paternal side) and Dutch (Vanderbild, maternal side); Lillian’s parents were from the German- and French-speaking areas of Switzerland, so young Keith grew up under many European as well as American cultural influences. He also was subject early in life to contending political influences, since his maternal grandmother was a Republican state committeewoman even though Keith’s grandfather was a steel-union organizer. Keith had to tread carefully between his grandparents at family gatherings.

Keith attended a very small rural school with only twelve students in an era when many parents placed little emphasis on education. Nonetheless, Keith went on to complete a bachelor’s degree at Union College in Schenectady before earning his doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1964. His adviser at Harvard, Professor Robert Wolff, told him he was being excused from undergoing the traditional dissertation defense in view of the very high quality of his dissertation, which dealt with the National Movement in Transylvania.

Hitchins’s acquaintance with Romanian language and culture began in 1957-58 at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied with Emil Turdeanu and Jean Boutiére. Not long thereafter, he became the first American Fulbright Scholar to be invited to study in a country behind the Iron Curtain. There, in Romania, he worked first under the guidance of the historian Andrei Oțetea. Then, in short order, he made the acquaintance of the giants of Romanian historiography: David Prodan, Constantin Daicoviciu, and Virgil Cândea.

A strong shelf is needed to accommodate the dozens books Hitchins wrote, edited, or contributed with chapters about Transylvania but most about Romania as a whole. Hundreds of his articles also challenged specialists in Romanian history to keep up with his scholarship. Much of his work focused on the prominent role played by intellectuals and clergy in the formation and consolidation of Romania as a modern nation-state as well as on the country’s Europeanization while remaining faithful to its Orthodox and Greek-Catholic heritage. Showing their gratitude for Hitchins’s scholarly choices and recognizing his remarkable intellect, the post-communist Romanian government, Romanian presidents, the Romanian Royal House, the Romanian Academy, Romanian History Institutes, and the nation’s foremost universities lavished their highest honors and distinctions upon him.

Hitchins could recount a few stories about being pursued by the Securitate forces in communist Romania. At the same time he did not forget the many examples of generous hospitality accorded him by communist officials like Mihai Beniuc, Miron Constantinescu, Patriarch Teoctist, Ștefan Pascu, and Gh. Maurer. He was so highly esteemed that the regime invited him to write a biography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, a proposition he left unanswered.

Hitchins’s first teaching took place at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where for seven years he taught European history but also the Russian language. Then, after a brief period on the history faculty of Rice University in Texas, he was lured to the University of Illinois, where he spent the most important years of his academic life. His teaching had to do mainly with Europe and Asia, with courses on Habsburg, Mughal, and Mongol Empires, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. As a frequent contributor to the Encyclopedia Iranica, he produced articles on Georgian, Tadjik, and Kurdish literature and culture. Similarly, his articles for the Encyclopedia of Empire dealt mainly with poets, writers, and other intellectuals. He did not speak from notes in his courses but concentrated largely on story-telling, using a warm voice that blended perfectly with a modest countenance.

Keith Hitchins shared with his students his Second World War scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings he had collected as a boy, leaving students at Illinois so fascinated that they would invite their grandparents to campus to meet this Professor Hitchins whom they liked so much.
Although Hitchins helped his former graduate students in many ways, he did not plant his acolytes in history departments across the nation, partly at least because he believed that each of us has to work very hard on our own to succeed. He believed in unconditional loyalty and was not known to have ever broken a single friendship in his entire life. He did not pressure students to adopt his precise and concise--even superb--writing style or to imitate his own scholarly vision. As a true historian, he felt the burden of the past in everything he did. The past lived in him.

Keith Hitchins, Professor Hitchins, is remembered by colleagues, friends, and students as erudite, dependable, and always distinctively dressed, with white shirt, dark dress trousers, Humphrey Bogart trench coat, and his famous green hat. He had all the illuminations of wisdom and none of its pedantry.

He will be deeply missed.

EULOGY in loving memory of KEITH HITCHINS, delivered today, Tuesday, November 17, 2020 at Bond Funeral Home in Schenectady, NY.

"To the residents of the town of Schenectady, to Keith's beloved graduate and postdoctoral students, to Keith's esteemed colleagues:

We come to celebrate a professor who changed all around him for the better: a historian, a patriot, a great teacher, and a pioneering scholar. He embodied so much of what is best in America: the values of a small town, the objective morality of his forbearers, a supreme intellect trained in the best of schools, a rise to prominence from humble beginnings, philanthropy, and the ambition to build a magnificent private library.
I was among the fortunate few who enjoyed Professor Hitchins's company daily as his student, and, upon graduation, as its very close friend and partner in research, writing, and reading. I sensed early on, ever since I have met him, that his modesty and low-key presence were hiding something precious that was worth recording every step of the way, every word that he uttered, every story that he shared. Twenty years later, the notes I took back then prove to be a great source of learning.

He used to say: "Pompilia, What are you aiming to prove?" This question of his captured some of Professor Hitchins's remarkable qualities: to start with, he liked to put thoughts in order by dealing with questions, simple questions such as what, and how, and why, which he found the most difficult to answer.
He used to say to students: "This is our last meeting. I learned much from you. You think it's one-way street, but it isn't. Everybody comes at issues from different perspectives, depending on each of you and your intellectual baggage." He was curious whether it was possible for people in general, coming from different cultures to understand one another. The problem, he thought, was not coming from differences in language or superficial cultural affinities, but the problem was something deeper, more native, fundamental, psychological that can't be reached. If each side interprets the event in utterly different ways, that leads to estrangement and hostility, deeper that misunderstanding. He hoped that two people witnessing an event could still be sympathetic to one another.

Over his five-decade career, he noticed that what has changed for sure was the intellectual climate. But instead of being critical, he explained wisely that, at some point, a new generation comes to the top and sees no reason to continue to do what their predecessors did. So, he told me, they keep bringing forward all sorts of arguments because to them it made no sense anymore. With each change in intellectual climate, we see the same kind of doubts, a lack of purpose, and a lost sense of mission.

He was a refined intellectual, but he rejected intellectualism. Intellectualism, he used to say, was devoid of life and values. He fully embraced Lucian Blaga's summons to create and to surpass oneself.
His energy, his optimism, and his zest for life were on display since the early hours of the morning. He could be found cheering up the staff at the coffeehouse, which he frequented every single day of the week. Then, he cheered up the history department secretaries where he used to have his second coffee for the day. Two cancers did not scare him to show up to work each day of the week, heart problems neither.

He was never opinionated, yet his views clearly emerge in consistent fashion from his writings as a whole.He never spoke of virtues but embodied them. He didn't gloss over mistakes and sins, but pointed to them in the kindest possible way. Go over his book reviews, and articles, and books, and the admonitions and suggestions are right there on the page, shrouded in kindness and understanding. For that reason alone, and he was brilliant writer.

He was fiercely devoted to his graduate students from his very first to his very last, loyal to his friends, and extremely fond of his parents, whom he cherished deeply, especially his father. His work and his being are the culmination of the upbringing that he received from his two Hitchins forefathers: his father and grandfather.

His sense of humor was one of my favorite things about him. What better way to make the stress of graduate school vanish for a minute than inviting me to have a coffee "să discutăm, să conspirăm."
I think it was no secret the longstanding admiration that I had for him. My friends who ran into me in parks and stores preferred to avoid me for talking too much and too highly of Professor Hitchins. It's a habit that continues to this day and I don't see it reaching an end soon. No one was more special than the other in Professor Hitchins's eyes. We all felt that he loved us all, each of us had a special place in his heart. Each of us felt that he was in our corner, no matter what. Through his passing, we all lost our best friend. In each email we received from him, he gave me new powers to confront life with all its difficulties.

He was the first to tell me that he was not perfect. Instead of flaring a temper, he would say "I'm not going to think about that!!" To disagree with me, he liked to pretend he didn't hear what I said, or he was pretending to be confused about things I just told him. So, he would make me repeat what bothered me until I was giving up in exhaustion. Just like the inscription in Frank Lloyd Wright's home, which Professor Hitchins and I used to admire in Chicago on his way to the airport: "Good friend, around these hearth-stones speak no evil word of any creature."

He was quick to forgive but never asked for forgiveness, instead he would say: "I heard you!" He knew how to laugh at himself, be jolly when drinking wine with friends, and show a self-awareness that was striking. He never doubted another man's sincerity and was always willing to learn from others. Even to the point of repeating over and over the same questions. I always wondered why he liked to ask the same questions over and over. In the same way "And there is nothing new under the sun. That which has been is what will be. That which is done is what will be done. The sun also rises and the sun goes down and hastens to the place where it arose... The eye is not satisfied with the seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing." (The Ecclesiastes, 1:5-11).

Conversations with him were always a privilege. He strove to do great things every day without relishing fights and disagreements, which he found small, petty, unworthy. He preferred sharing ideas in an elegant discussion. To him, there was no victory or defeat, but only hard work and surpassing himself every day.
What better way to honor Professor Hitchins's scholarship and nobility of spirit than following his example to reach out to others kindly, be open to all. As members of the historians' community, to learn from each rather than competing or comparing ourselves, and to uphold principles of hard work and dignity.

In the names of these principles, he demonstrated to all of us that there are things more important than money, career, power, and influence that make one a true historian. It's morality, ethics and belief. Professor Hitchins showed us what they mean through his exemplary life.

May God bless Keith Hitchins and may God bless the two countries he loved the most, his own and mine! He served them both with honor and grace."

Service Details

  • Visitation

    Tuesday, November 17th, 2020 | 10:30am - 11:30am
    Bond Funeral Home
    1614 Guilderland Avenue
    Tuesday, November 17th, 2020
    10:30am - 11:30am
  • Service

    Tuesday, November 17th, 2020 | 12:00pm
    Woestina Reformed Cemetery
    Route 5S
    Tuesday, November 17th, 2020
    Rev. Kent McHeard
  • Interment

    Woestina Cemetery
    Main Street
    Rotterdam Junction, NY

Condolences & Tributes

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Miha Wood and Greg Wood, Irina Gigova and Bryan Ganaway, and other have sent flowers to the family of Keith Hitchins.
Hand delivered by a local florist
Miha Wood and Greg Wood, Irina Gigova and Bryan Ganaway, and other have sent flowers to the family of Keith Hitchins.
Hand delivered by a local florist

Katherine Verdery

I first met Keith while doing research for my first book, Transylvanian Villagers. One of the readers for the press had suggested I seek out this already renowned scholar, upon whom I had not the slightest claim, but this seemed unimportant to Keith, who invited me to visit him if I were to come through Illinois. I did so, looking him up while I was attending the U. of Illinois summer program in East European studies.
He impressed me at the outset with his combination of modesty and erudition, his ability to listen with discernment and offer useful comments without traumatizing his youthful interlocutors. Although he had many visitors as well as students, he never gave me the sense that I was holding him up; he was courteous to a fault.
Most of our visits after that first one occurred either at the AAASS meetings or in Bucharest. We would grab coffee or lunch and talk about whatever had most recently occurred in Romania, our current projects, or plans for a session at the next AAASS meeting. I wrote him periodically to request a loan from the "Hitchins Memorial Library," which already in 1979 was so stuffed with books that one could almost hear the rafters of his house groaning. Indeed, he was compelled to have his library rebuilt so that the books didn't bring the house down around him.
Keith was a gentleman in the full sense of the word. He appreciated the efforts of other scholars no matter their intellectual distance from him; moreover, I never detected in him the slightest trace of sexism. We were all scholars, trying to open up the past together.
Keith will remain in our hearts and in our work. Fie-i tarina usoara.

Comment | Posted at 08:00pm via Condolence

Dmitry Tartakovsky

Professor Keith Hitchins was a kind, supportive academic mentor and a warm, patient, and humorous human being. Many students of several generations, including me, will miss him greatly and remember him for many years.
Dmitry Tartakovsky
Comment | Posted at 04:37pm via Condolence

Kurt Brackob

I am deeply saddened to learn of Keith's passing. He was one of the finest men I have ever known. He was an outstanding scholar, a faithful mentor, and a devout friend who would never turn his back on you even in the most difficult of times. Keith was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. His loss will be forever felt by all those whose lives he touched, but his memory will live on and his scholarship will continue to influence generations of researchers.
Comment | Posted at 08:09pm via Condolence

Diana Jaher

My father and Keith first became friends in graduate school and were later colleagues for more than thirty years. My father called him a "gentleman scholar." I'll always remember the kindness he showed me after my father died -- taking me out to dinner several times: Silver Creek will always be "our" place.
Comment | Posted at 09:54am via Condolence

Virgil Bercea

Ne-am cunoscut bine, l-am prețuit, a conferențiat și la Oradea și ne-am întreținut cu bucuria de a avea în față un om adevărat și un istoric de marcă. Acum s-a dus, spre alte zări mai bune. De acum înțelege istoria într-o altă dimensiune ...
Bunul Dumnezeu să-i ierte păcatele și să-i facă parte cu drepții!
P. Virgil Bercea
Comment | Posted at 05:09am via Condolence


Professor Hitchins was the first man I have ever met who obediently and gracefully renounced all his worldly possessions both in life and in death. He was unique in so many ways!
Posted at 11:43am

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