‘The’ Historian

Historian William E. Lass signing a copy of his sesquicentennial history of Minnesota State Mankato.


How far can curiosity carry you in life?

In the case of Dr. William E. Lass, from a one-room country school in South Dakota during the Great Depression smack into writing the first comprehensive history of Minnesota State Mankato—finished when he was nearly 90 years old.

The Lass edition of curiosity has carried him a considerable distance as a professional historian. To wit: His new history, “Minnesota State University, Mankato, 1868-2018: A Sesquicentennial History,” is the fifth book he’s written after “retirement” in 2002 from 42 years on the history faculty at Minnesota State Mankato. That doesn’t even include the dozen post-retirement professional journal articles and a half-dozen encyclopedia and dictionary entries.

He’s done all this as a professor emeritus of history at the University. The Latin word “emeritus” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “having retired but allowed to keep a title as an honor.” Sound like a tailing off? For Lass as a writer, it’s meant a ramping up.

His ferocious productivity as a scholar is matched by the intellectual rigor he brings to his work. “One of the hallmarks of a good historian is a healthy dose of skepticism,” says Lass. “You have to go where the evidence takes you, then come down on the side of that evidence.”

For Lass, sniffing out facts doesn’t just occur at the research stage. “Until I get to writing,” he says, “I can’t really discern the facts.” He so loves the revelatory power of writing that, early in his career at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, he even enjoyed producing what some consider a dank pool of compositional misery—the doctoral dissertation.

As an academic discipline, says Lass, history has no specialized inward-looking vocabulary that throws up a wall between writer and reader: “That means I convey history in plain English.”

There’s one element of English Lass considers suspect. “The most dangerous part of speech,” he says, “is the adjective—words like ‘unscrupulous,’ for instance. So I generally refrain.”

But he pays particular attention to a special type of adjective – the “a/an/the” triad of English articles. “My new book is ‘a’ history, not ‘the’ history,” he says. It’s a history written by one human being, not some received knowledge immune to challenge.

The book features something else that was important to Lass as a consummate historian and scholar. “I wanted this history to have footnotes and a bibliography, so readers can see my sources,” Lass says.

It took Lass from November 2015 to March 2018 to complete his manuscript. During that time, he suffered a painful three-month interruption when he tore the quadrilateral ligament in his right knee. After five weeks of rehabilitation, he was back at it, leg extended ligament in his right knee. After five weeks of rehabilitation, he was back at it, leg extended straight under the table as he tapped away on his computer.

He was supported by University colleagues who shuttled between Lass’ home and University archives. (Lass and his wife, Marilyn, built their who shuttled between Lass’ home and University archives. (Lass and his wife, Marilyn, built their home home on Skyline Drive in 1964; Marilyn served the University’s Library Services from 1967 until her death in 1994.)

One of the shuttling colleagues was Daardi Sizemore Mixon, archivist and special collections librarian and now interim dean of Library Services. The idea for writing the sesquicentennial history came from Mixon, and her first choice for the job was Lass.

“I knew that Dr. Lass’ long history with the University, dedication to research and engaging writing style would result in a book that appeals to many audiences,” says Mixon.

Lass’ book covers the distinct periods of the University’s history, each marked by different institutional names: Mankato Normal School, which opened for its first classes Oct. 7, 1868, replaced by Mankato Teachers College in 1921 when the demand rose for four-year teaching degrees, succeeded by Mankato State College in 1957, Mankato State University in 1975 and then Minnesota State University, Mankato in 1998.

A seismic shift in the University’s evolution, notes Lass in his history, was the 20-year move from the original campus near downtown Mankato to the so-called upper campus, completed in 1979. And the propulsion up the hill all started with a pool.

When the University proposed an indoor swimming pool, an architect in the state Department of Administration, Richard Hammel, urged College leaders to purchase rural land just outside of the city limits. And they did, unleashing a slow-motion relocation seldom seen in higher education.

When Lass takes in that sweep of a century and a half, he sees a signal achievement: “The University has maintained its strong tradition of classroom excellence while transitioning to a certain emphasis on faculty and student research.”

In other words, Minnesota State Mankato has achieved a golden-mean meld of teaching, learning and research. That’s not always seen at the two ends of the higher education spectrum—research universities and liberal arts colleges.

The University’s sesquicentennial history is only the latest in a notable string of professional books Lass has written. Topics have ranged from the history of steamboating on the upper Missouri River to the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with the Dakota Indians to a definitive, comprehensive history of Minnesota, in its second edition.

Lass even published a book about his one-room school in rural South Dakota, “A South Dakota Country School Experience.”

He first crossed its door in 1934, before rural electrification had reached the school.

Some of his classmates disappeared when they were needed on their family farms. But Lass’ parents insisted that Bill and his sisters, Frances and Irene, stay in school. “My parents were uneducated but pro-education,” he says.

When he wasn’t in school, though, there were chores aplenty on the 80-acre Lass farm. And all the plowing and planting and cultivating and hauling were done with…horses.

Think about it: The man who wrote Minnesota State Mankato’s history, alive and relentlessly razor-sharp, has a personal history with more than a whiff of the 19th century.

He grew up on a tractor-free farm tied more in technique to the Amish than to modern mega-farming. And, when many Americans are quite removed in time from their immigrant ancestors, Lass can point to all of his grandparents as German immigrants.

That one-room school in South Dakota launched Lass into a career so distinguished that the Northern Great Plains History Conference, held in September in Mankato, featured a session devoted entirely to Lass’ achievements.

A conference organizer was Dr. Lori Lahlum, professor of history at Minnesota State Mankato. “As a scholar,” she says, “Bill Lass is one of the foremost historians of Minnesota, having written extensively about the state’s rich history for more than 50 years.”

A discussant at the Lass conference session was Dr. Steve Potts, historian on the faculty at Hibbing Community College. Both he and earlier his father studied under Lass at Minnesota State Mankato, giving Potts a half-century perspective on the historian.

“Dr. Lass’ counsel is wise, the scope of his knowledge and interests impressive and his productivity astounding,” says Potts.

So does the publication of the Minnesota State Mankato history finally signal a tailing off in writing for Professor Emeritus William E. Lass?

Oh, hardly.

Next up for this 90-year-old curiosity-driven man? Two journal articles on the frontier phase of Minnesota history, for which he’s already done research.

“I like learning new things,” he says with a smile. – Jeff Iseminger