Historian Nagel became Adams family expert

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2011 - 9:44 PM
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Paul C. Nagel

Photo: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune

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Paul C. Nagel loved telling stories to presidents, Supreme Court justices and common folk. Whenever he was in Quincy, Mass., he would go to the home of former Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, take down the velvet rope that kept out tourists and just walk in.

"The Adams clan treated Dad like family," Nagel's son Eric said Monday.

Nagel, 85, a University of Minnesota family member who died of cancer Sunday in Edina, was a famed historian and biographer and one of three people to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Adams Institute. The others were two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"Paul was a first-rate historian, first-rate teacher and first-rate human being," said McCullough, who spoke recently with Nagel after learning through former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, a mutual friend, that Nagel was ill.

"He had a modest, but confident, sure hand in his work and in the way he proceeded through life. He was level in all circumstances -- academic, personal and in the dark turbulence of the world we live in."

A Missouri native whose family came to Minnesota instead of Colorado for a fishing trip, Nagel fell in love with the huge Northern pike and the University of Minnesota, his son said. Always a historian, Nagel was 26 when he earned his doctorate at the U.

His books included "Descent From Glory" -- a study of four generations of the Adams family -- in 1983; "The Adams Women" in 1987, and "John Quincy Adams," the 1997 masterpiece that is considered the definitive work on our sixth president.

Boschswitz introduced Nagel to President George W. Bush, who had read Nagel's book on John Quincy Adams.

"George W., being part of the second father-son team, was very responsive, saying he really got something out of the book," Boschwitz recalled. "But any conversation with Paul was very stimulating."

A teacher and writer, Nagel spent 15 years as a history professor at the University of Kentucky before becoming its dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1969, Nagel was named vice president for academic affairs with the University of Missouri system.

Then he changed his career course, becoming the director of the Virginia Historical Society, a private research library in Richmond, Va. In 1985, he became a full-time writer.

"Paul was such an engaging personality," said the Rev. Dennis Johnson, his friend and former interim president at Gustavus Adolphus College. "He drew people to him, whether they were politicians, journalists or academics."

Nagel met several presidents and was a friend of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"But he was interested in everybody," said Johnson, "anybody who he could tell his story to."

Nagel and his wife, Joan, returned to Minnesota in 1992. Joan, a genealogist who collaborated in many of her husband's works, died last year.

In addition to his son Eric, Nagel is survived by two other sons, Jefferson and Steve, and one granddaughter.

A public remembrance will be held Wednesday at 3 p.m. at the U's Elmer L. Anderson Library, 222 21st. Av. S., Minneapolis.

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