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  • Richard Cordero

Ward Elliott: A Pillar of Claremont McKenna

Image via CMC

Professor Ward Elliott passed away in Claremont on December 6. He was 85. He was one of the few professors to serve under all five of the college's presidents and was known for his Socratic lessons, battles against smog, and quest to uncover the mystery of Shakespeare's authorship. Elliot frequented Wohlford Hall and hosted widely attended singing parties. He loved his students and peers like no other.

Elliott first came to CMC, then Claremont Men’s College, at the invitation of President George Benson in 1968. Elliott was a graduate of Harvard and the University of Virginia, obtaining four degrees, including a Ph.D. and a J.D. Elliott had just turned thirty when President Benson tapped him to teach government and serve as the Salvatori Center’s inaugural director.

The professor loved that CMC was a small college and believed it could one day be as prestigious as the well-established East Coast colleges. To compete with their centuries of history, Elliot established a number of CMC traditions.

One Elliott-crafted tradition was the Latin Oration. At commencement, a senior would give a speech in Latin to the class, who would then respond in Latin. “It was to amaze the parents who would now think their students spoke Latin," John Faranda '79 said, "[It was all] a big inside joke.”

His house was nicknamed "Toad Hall." When new faculty arrived, Elliott would invite them over and offer them a freshly-picked orange. The orange represented the fruits that professors could cultivate at CMC thanks to the college's small, close-knit community. Elliot encouraged professors to eat at Collins, attend the Athenaeum and bond with students.

There was no Elliott tradition more beloved than his singing parties. He held the first one in his Harvard dorm room in 1965. Students lit the room with candles, played instruments and sang. Elliot brought the tradition with him when he moved to Claremont. He would march around campus and tell almost everyone he passed that there was going to be a singing party on Friday night.

When the day would come, the parties never disappointed. As Faranda remembered, “Mrs. Elliott would always have a huge spread of wine, crackers, chips, and cheese for us hungry college students.” Even those who were not Elliot's students were welcome. Typically, more than fifty singers would file into Toad Hall and sing into the night.

Toad Hall's doors were open even when there was no singing party. At Elliot's celebration of life, William Elliott, one of Elliott’s two children, said that alumni would often come knocking on the door and ask: “Does Professor Elliott still live here?”

The professor would often lead groups of students on hikes up the mountains surrounding CMC. His Baldy hike was many's favorite. Sometimes, the college's president would join. At the summit, the group would eat cheese and drink, while taking in the view. He also served as the Rugby team's cultural advisor, tagging along on many international trips. He provided historical and cultural tidbits, giving the students more than just an athletic experience.

In 1985, he co-founded the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program alongside the respective philosophy and economics professors John Roth and Gordon Bjork. To this day, the program is the only PPE program in the US that follows the original Oxbridge model. A cohort of 12 students meets once a week as a class and once in pairs to debate papers. Elliott was adamant about preserving CMC's unique character as a small college. No matter how large the college grew, PPE students could always be in close contact with faculty.

Elliott valued CMC's distinctive, ideologically diverse political climate. He felt that it was harmful for a college to homogenize, both in the faculty and in the student body. As Professor Charles Kesler recalled, Elliott believed that “students should become thoughtful partisans and good citizens.” Elliott feared that the death of ideological diversity at Claremont McKenna would do nothing more than kill the unique character of the college. He ran surveys over the course of several years, gauging political and ideological diversity among students and faculty. Elliott found that ideological diversity declined over the years.

The longstanding debate as to the true author of Shakespeare's work fascinated Professor Elliott. He tackled the question alongside Professor Valenza from 1987 to 1994. The Shakespeare Clinic, as they named it, used computers to match writing styles with those purported to be true Shakespeare. As widely reported in national media, Elliott and Valenza’s work denied the authenticity of many works in Shakespeare’s Apocrypha.

According to Congressman David Dreier '75, Claremont's mountains used to barely be visible from campus. From 1980 to 1986, Elliott was president of the Coalition for Clean Air in California. The programs he spearheaded were the first in the country and key victories in the battle for clean air. His hard campaigning was key to California passing laws reducing emission permissions. After 20 years of work, 1999 was the first year Southern California had no first-stage smog alerts.

In 1998, when Kevin Starr wrote an official history of CMC, Professor Elliott was the only faculty member allowed to comment on the first draft. In his comments, he stressed the need to honor past CMC professors like Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond, and Leo Strauss, who contributed to “CMC’s Old-fashioned, neoclassical, Straussian government department.” He also praised CMC for its ability to weather national political controversies in a moderate fashion in his comments.

Professor Elliott started CMC traditions, furnished our community and tutored generations of students. He had a keen sense of the importance of a connection to the past while understanding the need for change and innovation. He touched countless lives in Claremont and around the world. We are indebted to his generous and energetic spirit.


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