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In Memoriam: Thomas C. Cox, 72

The associate professor emeritus of history’s publications included a recent book examining how federal and local governments instituted laws to help Kansas residents who lost everything during a grasshopper epidemic.

By Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody
January 19, 2012

Thomas C. Cox, associate professor emeritus of history in USC Dornsife, was a leading historian in African American studies and American intellectual and social history. The native of Topeka, Kan., began his 29-year tenure at USC Dornsife in 1982 as assistant professor of history. He became emeritus associate professor of history in 2008. Photo courtesy of Gerry Cox.

Thomas C. Cox, associate professor emeritus of history in USC Dornsife, was a leading historian in African American studies and American intellectual and social history. The native of Topeka, Kan., began his 29-year tenure at USC Dornsife in 1982 as assistant professor of history. He became emeritus associate professor of history in 2008. Photo courtesy of Gerry Cox.

Thomas C. Cox, associate professor emeritus of history in USC Dornsife and a leading historian in African American studies and American intellectual and social history has died. He was 72.

Cox died at home in Pasadena, Calif., on Dec. 9, 2011, from heart and pulmonary complications, his former wife of 30 years Gerry Cox said.

“Tom’s greatest gift was that of encouragement, love and motivation to USC students,” Gerry Cox said. “He was a wonderful and sensitive person. A true intellectual.”

Cox began his 29-year tenure at USC Dornsife in 1982 as assistant professor of history. He became emeritus associate professor of history in 2008.

His interdisciplinary research centered on the quality of life of middle-class African Americans. Cox — who was raised in Topeka, Kan., and earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Kansas — used Kansas as his primary geographical area of study. Widely known as a scholar in United States urban history, Cox is also remembered for his impact in the classroom.

“Over the years, he made his greatest mark as a teacher,” said Steven Ross, professor of history in USC Dornsife who befriended Cox while both pursued their doctorate degrees at Princeton University. “Tom was one of the best teachers of intellectual history I have ever worked with. His lectures were impeccable — and what made them so was that they were aimed at his students rather than at the profession. That is, Tom never tried to show off how smart he was.”

Cox pursued research interests such as intellectual currents and origins of disaster relief — legal, demographic and economic — and public policy responses to disasters through the ages. He also examined the development of systematic social welfare in political and non-political institutions.

In USC Dornsife, Cox taught several courses ranging from African American urban history to the mobility of African Americans in America and intellectual and social history.  

“He believed a professor's job was to take the most complicated ideas, think about them, and then present them to students in a clear and readily understandable way,” Ross said. “In my 32 years at USC, Tom along with Terry Seip, associate professor emeritus of history in USC Dornsife, tied for having the longest lines of students waiting outside their doors.”

Gerry Cox noted that her husband often invited students to their home to engage in intellectual discussions. Described as a Renaissance man, Cox’s interests lay in fields that ran the gamut from philosophy and history to art and music.

“He was a genuine intellectual with remarkable range in art, poetry, literature, and music — all things cultural and social and intellectual,” Seip said. “He was a caring and concerned teacher with well-crafted lectures and he seldom referred to these notes during class, but rather had the content so well in hand that his lectures just flowed with careful and thoughtful articulation.”

Peter Mancall, chair of USC Dornsife’s Department of History, recalled the conversations he and Cox had on their shared interest of environmental history. Mancall also spoke fondly about his talks with Cox regarding the University of Kansas, where Cox had been an undergraduate and where Mancall served on the faculty prior to his arrival at USC Dornsife in 2001.

“Tom was a restless investigator of nature and a great intellectual,” said Mancall, professor of history and anthropology, and director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute in USC Dornsife. “He completely put to rest the notion that Kansans are too provincial to play a major role in the intellectual life of the nation.

“Tom was a great undergraduate teacher, really devoted to his students and deeply dedicated to his research, which produced two important books,” he said.

Cox published extensively on African American and social history. He wrote Blacks in Topeka, Kansas, 1865–1915: A Social History (Louisiana State University Press, 1982).  His book Everything but the Fenceposts: The Great Plains Grasshopper Plague of 1874–1877 (Figueroa Press, 2010) examined how the federal and local governments instituted laws to help ameliorate the loses of Kansas residents who lost everything during a grasshopper epidemic. The publication is a key contribution to understanding the origins of the disaster relief efforts because Kansas’ response to the epidemic provided a model for future reformers interested in creating public-private alliances to aid communities in need of assistance, Ross said.

Gerry Cox recalled her husband’s ardor for nature and poetry — passions that sprang from his mother’s love of reciting literary works and his walks in the woods with his father, an entomologist and biology teacher. He often strolled through the woods near the University of Kansas and in New Jersey, where he earned his master’s and Ph.D. in intellectual and social history at Princeton University.

These leisurely strolls continued when he accepted a teaching position at Middlebury College in Vermont. When Cox arrived in Los Angeles and joined USC Dornsife, his walks continued, but inside contemporary art museums and sculpture gardens. 

As they walked side-by-side, Cox would recite to his wife his favorite stanza from the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Cox’s longtime friend and colleague, John E. Wills, Jr., professor emeritus of history in USC Dornsife, remembered when Cox ended a course by reciting protagonist Prospero's closing soliloquy in The Tempest, considered one of the most memorable speeches in Shakespearean literature. The lengthy speech ends with, “As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free.”

“It should be no surprise that he attracted devoted students who took every course he offered,” Wills said. “I and many colleagues will remember Thomas Cox for these accomplishments and for his immense capacity for friendship and delight in intellectual interchange.”

Born Aug. 10, 1939, to Josiah and Henrietta Cox in Topeka, Kansas, Cox attended the University of Kansas as his parents did. On that same sprawling campus, Cox met his future wife, Gerry Cox, who was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in 1960.

At USC, he received many honors and distinctions including a Fletcher Jones fellowship from the Huntington Library in 1989 and the Reaching Excellence Award from USC Dornsife’s Division of Social Sciences and Communication that same year.

A celebration of life for Thomas Cox will be held Monday, Jan. 30 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Fishbowl Chapel at USC. For more information, contact Lori Rogers at (213) 740-8999 or at lrogers@dornsife.usc.edu.