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Dr. Robert Sutton, WIU Prof. Emeritus of History

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Prof. Emeritus Robert Sutton's Life Celebrated

Feb 17, 2009

Dr. Robert P. Sutton, WIU Professor Emeritus of History, died Tuesday morning, February 17, 2009, after battling cancer for several years. Dr. Sutton, father of WIU Geography Professor Chris Sutton, retired from the WIU History Department in 2004 after 34 years at WIU.

Dr. Sutton made a career of study and research, which he gladly shared with students, scholars and the public, and his friends and colleagues in the History Department will miss him. Dr. Sutton earned seven Faculty Excellence Awards and three Professional Achievement Awards for Outstanding Teaching and Research in his 34-year career at Western. In 1993 he received the College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Research Award.

Woven into his life's work was an underlying passion for history. A Marine Corps veteran, Dr. Sutton was a scholar of American legal history, as well as the age of Presidents Jefferson and Jackson. In the mid-1970s, shortly after joining the History faculty at Western, his research interests expanded to areas associated with his new surroundings - - Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and the history of American communal utopias. He was recognized internationally for his expertise in utopias, which were the basis of ten of his fourteen published books.

Sutton's first, and continuing, passion for American legal history and the age of Jefferson and Jackson was consistent with his East Coast upbringing and education. A native of one the 13 Colonies (Pennsylvania), his early career flourished in the East. He was a pre-law major at Juniata College (1962), a highly regarded liberal arts school situated in the beautiful Appalachian Mountain Range, just east of his hometown of Altoona, PA. He followed in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, attending the College of William and Mary, where he was a lecturer and earned his Master's degree in 1964. He was an instructor and doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, where he earned one of two Thomas Jefferson Foundation Fellowships, which allowed him to complete his dissertation (in 1967) on the legal history of the Upper South.

Then, during his three years (1967-1970) of teaching, including two as History Department Chair, at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, he "began to get an itch to turn my dissertation into a book," Dr. Sutton once said. In 1970 he received a prestigious grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, which allowed him to complete his research in legal history at Virginia. That fall, Dr. Sutton ventured to the Midwest and Western Illinois University and discovered new interests, including the somewhat undiscovered subject of communal utopias, specifically the settlements of French Icarians.

This was a new research frontier, and multiple events came together like pieces of a puzzle for Sutton. Six years into his tenure at Western, Sutton was named Director of Western's newly-created Regional Collections, a unit of the new library being built to better serve the University's commitment to the academic mission and faculty research and to promote greater service to the region. The divided appointment had him working two-thirds time in collections and one-third time teaching history.

As Director of the newly-created Center for Icarian Studies (1976) Dr. Sutton's tenacity and curiosity led to the creation of the world's largest collection of Icarian history, including a prized original first edition copy of Etienee Cabet's Voyage in Icaria. Sutton picked up many of the collections -- which include original manuscripts, personal letters and photographs -- from 1976 to 1979, before he again "got an itch" to be back at teaching and researching. He continued to develop the collections as Director of the Center for Icarian Studies through the 1990s.

In 1990 Dr. Sutton took a sabbatical and ventured to Europe to finish his research on Icaria, touring three major collections in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. He completed WIU's collection with the 1995 publication of a finding aid and a descriptive inventory to the rich Icarian history housed in Western's Special Collections.

Dr. Sutton was the first, and only, person to translate Cabet's entire book, Voyage in Icaria, into English. He completed Travels in Icaria in 1985. After that, he wrote eight more books on the Icarians. In 1998 he received the Donald E. Pitzer Distinguished Service Award from the Communal Studies Association.

Dr. Sutton's Icarian studies were interspersed with an award-winning book about Illinois, Rivers, Railways, and Roads: A History of Henderson County, Illinois, and the completion of his legal history studies in the book, Revolution to Secession: Constitution Making in the Old Dominion, which was published by The University Press of Virginia, 1989, and nominated for the Merle Curti Award in American Intellectual History. In 1992, Prof. Sutton wrote and narrated a six-hour historical documentary, Illinois: Historic Panorama, that was broadcast by satellite to all Illinois schools on the WIU/ISBE Satellite Education Network and has been made available to high schools on video tape.

Among Dr. Sutton's final published works was the two-volume Communal Utopias and the American Experience (Praeger, Greenwood Publishing), which details communities from 1732 to 2000. The first volume on religious communities was released in 2003. The second volume on secular communities, from 1824 to 2000, was published February 2004. His penultimate book, Modern American Communes: A Dictionary, was published in 2005 by Greenwood Press. Prof. Sutton's final work of scholarship, Heartland Utopias, a regional approach to the study of utopian movements, is forthcoming this June from Northern Illinois University Press.

Prof. Sutton served on the Board of Directors for the National Communal Studies Association and the Historic Markers Committee of the Illinois State Historical Society. He also served as a manuscript reviewer for the Oxford University Press, the University of Chicago Press, D.C. Heath & Company, and several scholarly journals, including the William and Mary Quarterly, Utopian Studies, and the Journal of the Early Republic. From 1997 until his retirement in 2004, Dr. Sutton has served as the grievance officer for Western's faculty union, the University Professionals of Illinois.

Memorials may be made to scholarships in the WIU Department of History, to the McDonough District Hospital Hospice Program, or to the American Cancer Society.

-- based on news release by Bonnie Barker

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