G. Thomas "Tom" Edwards, historian, teacher, scholar and mentor to generations of Whitman students died yesterday at the age of 86. After his retirement in 1998, Edwards returned with his wife, Nannette, to his home state of Oregon. Former pupils vividly recall Edwards's ability to present the saga of the Civil War, from the cacophony of battle to the dynamics of military leadership, and from political struggles leading up to the war to the impact on free and enslaved people during the war. His recent days were filled with emails, notes and phone calls from former students, Whitman presidents and faculty and staff members reminding him of his influence on them and on the college. Edwards stayed in contact with dozens of his former students, many of whom became lifelong friends.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Edwards grew up in Taft, Oregon. He earned his bachelor's degree from Willamette University and his master's and doctorate from the University of Oregon. While in graduate school, he taught public school in Eugene, Oregon, before accepting a position at San Jose State College. Jim Pengra, a fellow University of Oregon graduate student who was on the faculty at Whitman, encouraged Edwards to accept a position in the Whitman history department in 1964.
A respected colleague, dedicated teacher and active scholar, Edwards held numerous leadership positions on the faculty, including elected chair of the faculty. He was named the William Kirkman Professor of History in 1985, and earned both the Burlington Northern Teaching Achievement Award and the Robert Y. Fluno Teaching Award during his career. Upon his retirement, his former students joined together to fund the G. Thomas Edwards Award for Excellence in the Integration of Teaching and Scholarship, marking Edwards's special ability to combine these complementary talents.
His classes on American history at Whitman, particularly in Western American history and the Civil War and Reconstruction, provided generations of students with rigorous and enriching academic experiences. Edwards was eager to involve students in his scholarship and inspired many students to pursue teaching careers, work in archives and study history. Edwards also served as an important resource and adviser for seven Whitman presidents.
When then-President Robert Skotheim approached him in 1982 about the possibility of writing a scholarly history of Whitman, Edwards, after careful consideration of the sources and scope of the project, accepted the opportunity. The publication of The Triumph of Tradition: The Emergence of Whitman College, 1859-1924 (Whitman College, 1992), winner of the Governor's Award, and Tradition in a Turbulent Age: Whitman College, 1925-1975 (Whitman College, 2001), added significantly to scholarship on the history of higher education in the Pacific Northwest. To Whitman alumni, those volumes capture the spirit that defines much of the Whitman experience, regardless of their graduation year.
Edwards was a regular presenter at reunions and alumni events across the country, and he led many trips for the Whitman College Alumni Association. His presentations on the emergence of Whitman College, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and Whitman in the age of student activism attracted large audiences. The Alumni Association presented him with its award for faculty service in 1996, but his appearances continued for another 20-plus years, and included an appearance at the 50th Reunion celebration in 2017.
Edwards continued his research and writing throughout his retirement. In 2003, he received the Robert Gray Medal from the Washington State Historical Society for lifetime achievement in teaching regional history. During his career, he published four books and dozens of articles in scholarly journals. A gifted lecturer, Edwards had the ability to reach both his fellow scholars and audiences as diverse as Portland's Civil War Roundtable, secondary school students and his fellow residents in his retirement community at Mary's Woods at Marylhurst, a mark of his mastery of his material.
Edwards is survived by his daughter Stephanie Plowman '85 (Gary), son Randall Edwards (Julia Brim) of Portland, and five grandchildren: Katherine, Thomas and Jackson Brim-Edwards, and Reid and Marie Plowman.
Plans for a memorial service in Portland are pending.