Richard L. Watson not only taught history, he is a big part of history: both Duke’s and Durham’s.
During his 45 years at the university, Watson held various leadership positions and served on numerous councils.
Between 1941 and 1946, Watson left Duke to serve in the Army. He was first at the Coast Artillery School until appointed to the Army Air Force Historical Office. There, he was responsible for selecting documents and writing histories about the Pacific theatre of operations during the War. His work was included in the seven-volume series The Army Air Forces in World War II. Watson also was the author of five books and dozens of scholarly articles.
During the tumultuous 1960s, Watson helped put into place judicial procedures and policies to deal with the pickets and protests. He also served on the Faculty Committee on Student Concerns which helped develop policies in response to the takeover of the Allen Building in 1969.
Trained to specialize in early 19th-century American history, Watson shifted his focus to early twentieth-century American history to fill a need. His interests lay in the Progressive, Depression, and New Deal Eras. He took the lead in developing Black Studies, teaching several summer workshops for college professors.
He also was active in the Durham community, helping to establish the St. Philip’s Community Kitchen and the Durham Urban Ministry Center. For his work he was recognized with the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service and later with the Duke University Campus Ministry Humanitarian Service Award.
“He made quite an impact on the university, the Durham community and beyond,” said the late Jack Cell, a Duke history professor and friend. “Every university needs its Dick Watsons, and unfortunately they are in short supply.”
Watson died in 2000 at the age of 85.