Richard Wade, 87, Urban Historian, Dies

July 25, 2008

By WILLIAM GRIMES

Richard C. Wade, who helped put cities on the map as an academic subject and who advised Democratic candidates including Adlai Stevenson, Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern, died last Friday at his home on Roosevelt Island in New York City. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Liane Thomas Wade.

Dr. Wade, who taught at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York from 1971 to 1993, pursued an urban agenda through his writing and teaching and in the political arena.

His first book, which grew out of the dissertation he wrote at Harvard under Arthur Schlesinger Sr., challenged Frederick Jackson Turner’s argument that the American frontier was opened up by farmers and pioneers. In “The Urban Frontier,” published in 1959, Dr. Wade argued that cities like Pittsburgh, Louisville and Cincinnati were the catalysts for westward expansion.

At the University of Chicago, his application of social-science techniques to the analysis of cities decisively influenced students like Kenneth T. Jackson, now a professor of history at Columbia University, and Howard P. Chudacoff of Brown University.

“He was a pioneer in the interdisciplinary study of urban history,” said David Nasaw, a history professor at the Graduate Center of CUNY. “His studies were not just of politics or immigration. He tried to look at the city as a living, breathing, complicated and not always harmonious organism.”

While teaching and writing, Dr. Wade also engaged the world of practical politics as a campaign adviser and a one-man brain trust for Democrats, both locally and nationally.

In the New York Senate race in 1964, he managed Robert F. Kennedy’s upstate campaign, and he was the chief strategist for Senator McGovern’s presidential campaign in the New York primary.

“He was an odd combination of intellectual and old-fashioned politician,” Dr. Nasaw said. “When you sat down to talk with him, you never knew which one you were going to get.”

Richard Clement Wade was born in Des Moines but grew up in Winnetka, Ill., a wealthy suburb of Chicago, where his father practiced law. He attended New Trier High School, where he played championship-level tennis.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at the University of Rochester and also competed in basketball, track and field and baseball.

After receiving his doctorate at Harvard in 1956, he taught at Rochester and at Washington University in St. Louis before moving to the University of Chicago in 1963.

In 1971, he was named a distinguished professor of history at CUNY’s Graduate Center.

In addition to “The Urban Frontier,” his books include the influential “Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860,” and, with Harold M. Mayer, “Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis.”

He was a founder and the first president of the Urban History Association. “He started a movement,” said Dr. Jackson, his former student. “There are hundreds of books on cities now, and in a sense he is their grandfather. The only reason I took urban history was because of him; I had never heard of such a thing.”

In 1991, Dr. Wade was appointed chairman of New York State’s commission on libraries by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

While traveling the state, Dr. Wade became alarmed at the high levels of adult illiteracy he encountered, and he devoted his later years to publicizing the issue.

His marriages to Louise Carroll Wade of Eugene, Ore., and Cynthia Hyla Whittaker of Manhattan ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Liane Wood-Thomas.

Dr. Wade, a close friend of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., with whom he shared an office at the Graduate Center, moved easily in the higher circles of Democratic politics.

“For 15 or 20 years, he was the guy reporters talked to to get an insight into city politics,” Dr. Jackson said. “But he didn’t want to be quoted; he wanted to be in the thick of the action.”

New York Times

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