Campus Mourns Sudden Loss of History Professor

Photo: Jon Gjerde
Jon Gjerde

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Jon Gjerde, a history professor and dean of the social sciences division at UC Berkeley, died in his Albany home Sunday evening of a heart attack. He was 55.

A renowned expert on American immigration history, Gjerde joined the campus's history department in 1985 and served as the department chair before becoming the dean of social sciences in 2007. He was teaching a graduate seminar this semester.

Friends were deeply saddened by Gjerde's death, and many said it was unexpected and difficult to explain.

"It's shocking-he was young and in apparently good health," said colleague Robin Einhorn, a history professor at UC Berkeley. "The history department and everyone who knew him is deeply shocked and in sorrow."

Gjerde was born 1953 in Iowa, and his love for the region never left him, said history professor David Hollinger. He received his bachelor's degree in history from the University of Northern Iowa in 1975 and his doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 1982.

"Although (Gjerde) was known throughout the world for his scholarly works, he always felt very close to the small town culture of the Midwest," Hollinger said.

Gjerde published five books, including two award-winners on the ethnocultural evolution of the American Midwest and Scandinavian immigration to the region.

Prior to his death, he had been working on a book about Catholic and Protestant relations in 19th-century America.

Gjerde's family said he was a man who enjoyed the simple things in life and valued being a husband, a father and a researcher at UC Berkeley more than anything else.

"Jon was the best dad and husband there ever was," said daughters Christine Gjerde and Kari Gjerde in an e-mail. "There are no words to describe how much he will be missed and what a hole he has left in our lives."

Colleagues remember Gjerde as kind and generous, modest but brilliant.

"He was a quiet and unassuming man, but I've been in countless meetings where he was the one with the freshest perspectives or the smartest ideas," said Janet Broughton, the dean of arts and humanities. "He lived by values that were clear and true in every dimension-intellectual, ethical, human."

Though Gjerde was dean of the largest division on campus, graduate students under his advisory said he always found time to meet.

"The moment I entered the (graduate) program he took me under his wing-there was no need to prove myself to him, no trial period," said UC Berkeley

graduate student Philip Wolgin. "He cared about my life beyond academia and that kind of closeness with an advisor is a rare and amazing thing to find."

Wolgin added that Gjerde was never afraid to bring a little humor and lightness to discussing controversial issues.

"He was the type of person who could pull off a very difficult academic debate dealing with ethnicity, but still have the levity to make a reference to something said by Stephen Colbert on the subject," Wolgin said.

Gjerde is survived by his wife Ruth Gjerde, who works in the campus's department of electrical engineering and computer sciences, and two daughters.

Colleagues said Gjerde will be dearly missed and will be honored at a campus memorial at an unspecified date.

"His loss will touch many, many lives here on campus," Broughton said. "All of us who have the privilege of working with him are going to miss him terribly."


Contact Mai Fung at [email protected]

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