A History of Shaping Lives

After 37 years at Mason, history professor Bob Hawkes says goodbye—and his many devoted students say thanks

By Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05

When Bob Hawkes came to Mason in 1969, there were six academic buildings and 1,200 students. The cafeteria, or the Ordinary (so named for its “ordinary” food, Hawkes quips), was in the basement of the South Building (now Krug Hall), just below the chemistry labs, so the smell of chemicals permeated the dining area. Where the Johnson Center, Robinson Hall, and other buildings now stand, in 1969 there were only trees leading back toward Braddock Road.

“We were almost unknown,” says Hawkes, history professor and an expert in U.S. southern and Virginia history. “In order to get publicity, we’d send a student out to climb the flag pole and then call the [Washington] Post and tell them. It rarely worked.”

Thirty-seven years later, Mason has grown to become an innovative research institution with outstanding faculty and academic programs, 30,000 students, and four campuses. Through it all, Hawkes has had a front row seat.

“People ask me how I’ve managed to stay at the same institution for so long. To them I reply, ‘In 37 years, I have been at many different institutions.’ What characterizes Mason is change. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere where there isn’t change.”

One thing that hasn’t changed over time is students’ devotion to Hawkes. In all those years of pounding facts into and sharing interesting stories with his students, Hawkes created a long list of people who remember and miss his teaching. When he announced his retirement this year, many of those devotees clamored for a way to celebrate his service.

Several Mason alumni, all former students of Hawkes, coordinated a retirement dinner and tribute to the man whom they call their most influential teacher. Held at the Country Club of Fairfax in April, the celebration had an Old South theme, representing Hawkes’s career.

“One of my most influential professors was Bob Hawkes,” says Stephen Karbelk, BA History ’92, cofounder and a former president of the History and Art History Alumni Chapter. “When we heard he was retiring, we wanted to go all out and have a big party for him.”

Rob Paxton, BA History ’79, credits Hawkes with many lessons in not only history, but also human nature, diversity, and writing. “He instilled a love of learning, and it’s helped me tremendously in life.”

The event was just one aspect of the tribute being paid to Hawkes. Alumni are working with Jack Censer, chair of the History and Art History Department, to raise money for an endowed chair in Hawkes’s name.

“This chair would reflect the tradition of Hawkes’ hands-on, careful concern for students and his committed effort to the institution,” says Censer. “That kind of teaching has been a tradition of the History Department, and Hawkes has been a role model for that.”

Hawkes says he will dearly miss teaching students. He says he still remembers his favorite comment ever written on an evaluation form: “In every lecture, you gave me something that I thought about for the rest of the day.”

“That was such a moving comment,” Hawkes says. “That’s what I always wanted to be as a teacher.”

About the dinner and the endowed chair effort, Hawkes says, “I am flattered and honored beyond belief. I’m hoping this gives me more opportunities to reconnect with former students. It’s wonderful.”

After retirement, Hawkes’s plans are simple. The historian, who among other things values a sense of humor, says, “I’m going to see if I can still plow behind a mule.” His students, he claims, will understand.

For more information or to donate to the Hawkes endowment, contact Tere Linehan, assistant dean, at 703-993-8719 or tlinehan@gmu.edu.

Photo (caption below)

Matthew Salter, BA History '01, (left) with Bob Hawkes