Clarke Chambers, a University of Minnesota history professor for 40 years, was nationally known for documenting aspects of U.S. history often overlooked — the history of women, the poor, immigrants and social services.
Decades before Congress’ debates over welfare and food stamps, Chambers built the U’s Social Welfare History Archives, containing thousands of documents and photographs that reveal America’s historical treatment of the poor and disadvantaged. It is now one of the largest such collections in the nation, tapped by hundreds of researchers each year.
He also spearheaded the U’s Oral History Project in the 1980s and ’90s, conducting more than 100 interviews himself. He was among the founders of the Elder Learning Institute in 1995, offering academic classes for seniors.
Chambers, 94, died July 28.
“He made enormous contributions as a teacher and scholar, as a faculty leader,” said Nils Hasselmo, U president from 1988 to 1997. “I considered him a very good personal friend, and a mentor, too. It was instructive to see how he operated in his quiet but energetic way.”
Chambers was a popular teacher with a fine sense of humor and inquisitive mind, friends said.
“It was symbolized by those twinkling blue eyes,” said David Klaassen, retired director of the welfare archives. “He had an interest and eagerness to engage anyone.”
Chambers was born in Blue Earth, Minn., in 1921, one of three children raised by country doctor Winslow Chambers and his wife, Anna. He graduated from Carleton College in Northfield in 1943, married college sweetheart Florence Wood the next year and served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in the western Pacific.
After earning a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, Chambers was offered a teaching position at the U in 1951. He was department chairman from 1971 to 1976 and retired in 1990.
Sara Evans remembers being hired as the first women’s history professor in the department when Chambers was chairman. The field of women’s history “didn’t really exist in 1976,” she said. Chambers was the force behind a nationwide project to unearth archives — divorce records, diaries, wills, letters — offering insights into women’s lives.
The project contacted state historical societies, county historical societies, university archives and beyond to catalog any primary documents about women.
“That pioneering work enabled the field of women’s history to take off in unbelievable ways,” Evans said.
In the 1960s, Chambers found a similar information gap in social welfare and social movements, so he began hunting for documents on early settlement houses in New York. During research trips to New York, he would step into bib overalls and scour the often dirty, wet basements to unearth letters, ledgers and other documents of interest, recalled his son Robert Chambers.
Eventually, the papers were shipped to Minnesota, becoming one of the foundations of the Social Welfare History Archives. That archive now contains about 12,000 boxes of pamphlets, posters, financial reports and information from 317 institutions ranging from the Twin Cities United Way to the Child Welfare League of America.
Chambers and his wife raised their four children in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood in St. Paul. Robert Chambers said the family enjoyed car camping trips, hiking at state parks and fantastic discussions at family dinners.
Clarke Chambers liked to tell the story about winning a national writing award in 10th grade. And as his prize, he could win $100 or lunch with then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. He’d ask people to guess what prize he chose, and they typically choose a lunch with Roosevelt.
“He’d say with a smile, ‘Nope, 100 bucks!’ ” said his son.
In later years, Chambers enjoyed spending time at his cabin, traveling, walking and swimming, Robert Chambers said. He never lost his interest in others, said his son, adding, “Right up to the last days of his life, he was engaging the nurses and staff. He wanted to get to know them.’’
A memorial service will be held in September.