Kolb, ‘tireless teacher,’ dedicated half century to his students
Gwin J. Kolb, one of the nation’s leading authorities on 18th-century English literature and Samuel Johnson, and a highly regarded teacher at the University, died Monday, April 3, at Montgomery Place in Hyde Park. He was 86. Kolb, the Chester D. Tripp Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and English Language & Literature, dedicated more than half a century to teaching and studying at the University.
“He was a great model of graciousness and generosity,” said David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and the College, who worked alongside Kolb for many years.
A native of Aberdeen, Miss., Kolb was noted by several of his colleagues for his charm, wit and for being a “scholar-gentleman.” A 1941 graduate of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.—where he met his future wife of 62 years, Ruth Godbold, when he graded her English papers—Kolb went on to spend most of his career at the University, where he earned his A.M. in 1946 and his Ph.D. in 1949.
“He was utterly loyal and a genteel, caring person, taking on unglamorous administrative responsibilities, housing needs, teaching assignments, whatever it was that needed to be done to keep people feeling welcome and appreciated,” Bevington said.
Kolb also was “a tireless teacher,” noted Bevington. In 1955, he received the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and was a Guggenheim fellow from 1956 to 1957.
“He had the ability to beautifully communicate his sense of love for his subject,” Bevington said. More often than not, that subject was Samuel Johnson, one of the earliest writers to compile an extensive dictionary of the English language and the author of the novel, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Kolb was the author or editor of nine books, six of which focused on Johnson. At various times throughout his career, Kolb served as president of the Johnson Society of the Great Lakes Region, chairman of The Johnsonians, co-president of the Johnson Society of the Central Region, and a member of the General Editorial Committee of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson.
As a member of the General Editorial Committee at Yale University for more than 30 years, Kolb edited Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Other Tales, Vol. XVI of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (1990), and co-edited with Robert DeMaria Vol. XVIII, Johnson on the English Language, published in October 2005.
“The pair of volumes is nothing less than a work for the ages,” said Bruce Redford, professor of art history and English at Boston University who taught at Chicago in the 1980s.
Kolb was first introduced to the work of Johnson, whom he called “the dictionary man,” when he was in high school and read an essay on Johnson that claimed his writings “would cease to be read, but that his conversation would attract readers as long as the English language endured.” Said Kolb many years later, looking back on his own career: “I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Kolb liked Johnson because he was “interested in language itself and in the way that language evolved,” said his son, Jack Kolb, a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And I think he also was captivated by Johnson’s personality.”
In a standard speech he would give as a way of introducing students to Johnson and his work, Kolb would point out that his academic muse, perhaps the greatest literary dictator of all time, famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
A professor in English from 1949 until his retirement in 1989, Kolb served as Chair of the undergraduate English staff from 1959 to 1960; Head of the undergraduate Humanities Division from 1960 to 1962; Chair of the English department from 1963 to 1972; Co-editor of the University’s Modern Philology journal from 1973 to 1989; and Resident Master with his wife Ruth of the Burton-Judson Courts from 1974 to 1978.
In addition to his remarkable dedication to the University and welcome blend of humor and scholarly work, Kolb also was known as a book collector, amassing an impressive collection of Johnson and his contemporaries that are now in the University’s Special Collections Research Center. He also was a longtime member of the University committee that awards the T. Kimball Brooker Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting.
“I could see in those interactions with students that there was magic going on,” said Alice Schreyer, Director of the Library’s Special Collections Research Center. “He charmed them as he did his colleagues and his friends, and he easily brought students into the world that he loved.”
Surviving Kolb are his wife, Ruth; son, Jack (A.B.,’67); daughter, Alma Dean Kolb (A.B.,’72), Managing Editor of International Journal of American Linguistics at the University Press; and two granddaughters. Ruth Kolb worked for many years in the University’s Office of Career Counseling and Placement.