History department remembers, celebrates Professor Christopher Schmidt-Nowara’s legacy

Professor Christopher Schmidt-Nowara is pictured with one of his students at the Fordham College Lincoln Center. (Via Fordham History)

On June 27, 2015, Professor Christopher Schmidt-Nowara suddenly passed away at the age of 48. With the news of his death, many in the Tufts community — administrators, students and fellow professors alike — grieved.

“It was a terrible loss,” said James Glaser, the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and a friend of Schmidt-Nowara.

According to Matthew Ehrlich, a former graduate student at Tufts who began his master’s studies under Schmidt-Nowara, his absence left a void in the history department at Tufts.

“Professor Schmidt-Nowara was the foremost scholar of 19th-century Spanish colonial history in the U.S.,” said Ehrlich. “After his death, the history department really came together. It was a shock for all of us.”

In addition to being a highly respected scholar in his field, he was a leader among his colleagues at Tufts. In a resolution, the history department noted how he “formed and nurtured connections across the university” in his position as professor and the Prince of Asturias chair in Spanish culture and civilization. Beyond his academic success, his colleagues described him as being down-to-earth and kind. Elizabeth Foster, an associate professor of history who was a close friend of Schmidt-Nowara, said that in an academic world of stuffiness and prestige, Schmidt-Nowara was loved for his ability to not take himself too seriously. Foster fondly recalled discussing movie and sports trivia at length with him.

“He was a star in his field, but you would not have known that from the way he comported himself,” she said.

According to Beatrice Manz, the chair of the history department at the time of Schmidt-Nowara’s passing, the department organized a service in celebration of his life and compiled a remembrance book for his family comprised of significant papers and artifacts left in his office.

Among these papers and artifacts was a manuscript. According to the resolution, in the time before his death, Schmidt-Nowara had just finished transcribing the diary of Lieutenant Franco Blanco White, a Spaniard who fled the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish struggle for independence. 

According to the resolution, Manz stepped in to ensure that the book would appear in print. However, her area of expertise lies far outside the realm of the book, as she studies Asian history. At first, she anticipated handling only the legal aspects of the book’s publication. As the project progressed it became apparent that she would be tasked with a large share of the editing as well.

Manz emphasized the fact that she did not work alone. She credited Ehrlich for being a great help and a driving force throughout the entirety of the process. According to Manz, it was he who found the manuscript, ensured that it was up-to-date and worked tirelessly to piece it together.

The challenge of editing a transcribed text originally written by a non-native English speaker required Manz and Ehrlich to commit ever-increasing quantities of time to the project.

“It was difficult to figure out what might have been an original error in language and what might have been an error in Professor Schmidt-Nowara’s reporting of it,” Ehrlich said.

To combat the issues associated with editing the text, they had to strike a delicate balance between establishing clarity while maintaining the voice of the speaker. They also tried to make changes only when they aligned with what they thought Schmidt-Nowara’s desires would have been.

“It was just an attempt to get out the work he had done in a form that would not bother him,” Manz said.

In the end, they settled on a conservative approach.

“We made the decision to not tamper with it, to guess what [Schmidt-Nowara’s] intentions would have been, but to leave it as very much [Blanco White’s] own voice,” Manz said.

However, those intentions were far from clear due to a lack of explicit instructions from Schmidt-Nowara. Deciphering the notes left on the unfinished manuscript became a major task in and of itself.

“It was a project of historical research to gather the various pieces of the project in a way that made the most sense,” Ehrlich said.

Manz said that it was with the help of the team at Louisiana State University Press, along with the research support team at Tufts, that they were able to complete the project. While Manz insisted that finishing fellow scholars’ books is fairly customary, other professors were wanted to highlight her contribution, emphasizing the great deal of work that was required of her and Ehlrich to publish the book. Foster emphasized the huge amount of time that both Ehrlich and Manz spent on the project without any expectations for personal gain. She attributed their sacrifices to Schmidt-Nowara.

“I don’t think a lot of people would have done what [Manz] did. I think it goes to show the depth of the connections [Schmidt-Nowara] made here even though he wasn’t even here for that long,” she said.

Beyond the history department, faculty members expressed their appreciation and admiration for Manz and Ehrlich’s work. Dean Glaser explained the importance of the publication of scholars’ works in the creation of their personal legacies.

“What Professor Manz did to finish that up, so that this last part of Professor Schmidt-Nowara’s legacy could be fulfilled, was a very beautiful thing,” Glaser said.

According to Ehrlich, the book is a reflection of Schmidt-Nowara’s dedication to telling historical stories that were often ignored. He explained that Schmidt-Nowara was committed to exposing wider historical processes related to liberalism, nationalism, slavery, race and ethnicity through the experiences of individuals.

Professor Schmidt-Nowara’s last book, “A Spanish Prisoner in the Ruins of Napoleon’s Empire: The Diary of Fernando Blanco White’s Flight to Freedom,” was published in 2018. It serves as an enduring commemoration of Schmidt-Nowara’s work at Tufts.