It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of Tony Emmerson after a short illness. A founder member of the Association, Tony was a dedicated servant to the Association in a number of committee roles over the last forty years and who, up to this sudden news, was our Treasurer and Membership Secretary. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a lifelong Sunderland fan, and a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, William Anthony Emmerson laid claim to a unique academic distinction: in 1967 he became the first and also the last graduate of the BA in Ancient and Medieval History, an achievement to which he referred with characteristic good humour.
After leaving Queen’s, Tony established himself as a keen historian of the United States of America and flew the flag for history, both within the IAAS and in the classroom. For forty-six years – and one month, he would regularly remind both himself and others – his academic home was the University of Ulster where successive generations of students were nurtured by his ardent commitment to the academy and to the education of Northern Ireland’s third level students in very difficult historic times. Tony’s academic career was defined by his promotion of the values of interdisciplinarity, and by his understanding of the importance of international contexts for a university education. With research and teaching interests in railroads and the West, the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Tony was perfectly placed to contribute significantly to the pedagogical development of the history curriculum in the north of Ireland, whether in terms of teaching, policy-making and what now would be termed outreach activities.
One of Tony’s major achievements was as Head of American Studies in the University of Ulster (Jordanstown and Coleraine). For many years before his retirement, he developed a very successful interdisciplinary programme which attracted students from Britain, Ireland and the United States of America. In addition, he co-ordinated the International Student Exchange Programme for the university, and consistently arranged innovative USA-Ulster exchanges for students. To succeed as he did, Tony undertook an annual or bi-annual road-trip in the States. He drove remarkable distances to visit universities in order to build and maintain connections in the interests of his students. Such commitment to bring this international perspective to the University of Ulster must be set in the context of his crowded teaching and administration schedules in his home university. For those of us who came to know Tony well over the years, it was always his energy matched by the intelligence and enthusiasm he brought to all his roles that marked him as a special contributor to the academy.
To encourage an all-Ireland engagement with American issues and the study of the USA, the Irish Association for American Studies was founded in the 1970s to support and offer an academic forum for the work of Americanists in Ireland. Those involved at the beginning included Peggy O’Brien (Trinity College Dublin), Denis Donoghue (University College Dublin), Alan Graham (Queen’s University Belfast) and, of course, Tony Emmerson (Ulster College then; now Ulster University). Of that first committee, Tony continued to be an active member of the IAAS to this year, and has served its committee with distinction.
Tony always defined his work as being both within and beyond the classroom. For example, he, along with his brother Michael, was a key figure in developing the Belfast Arts Festival in 1964. Since its genesis, the Belfast Festival has arguably become the main arts and culture showcase in Northern Ireland. Stories from those formative years of the Festival are now legion: Anthony Burgess reading from a manuscript called A Clockwork Orange; Alex Haley arranging for Playboy to arrange his trip to the Festival and then travelling to Carrickmacross to track down presumed slaveholder ancestors buried there; or Tony having to ask the Queen’s bursar for money to pay an irate Patrick Kavanagh in the Elms Bar. His involvement with the Belfast Festival also lead to another lifelong commitment: his brother Michael’s secretary Mary Mills would become Tony’s wife in 1968.
In addition to his commitments to the University of Ulster and the IAAS, Tony was the long-time Treasurer of the influential British Universities Transatlantic Exchange Association. Tony was the IAAS’s representative on the Board of the European Association for American Studies for an extended period and was elected to the prestigious post of Treasurer of the EAAS during his time on the EAAS Board. Indeed, Tony’s presence and influence on the EAAS Board was an important factor in the decision to bring the biennial EAAS conference to Dublin in 2010.
For those of us in Ireland who had the pleasure to work alongside Tony, it was his assiduous commitment to the IAAS cause that always heartened the membership and kept the Association alive when otherwise it may well have folded. While the IAAS has continued its work without a break since its formation, it is fair to say that it experienced a crisis in the mid-1990s. With the sudden death of Alan Graham, and the departure of Peggy O’Brien and Denis Donoghue to the US, the IAAS was active in a number of ways (conferences and the Irish Journal of American Studies), but faced dwindling membership numbers. Tony was a very significant influence in its continuity and its recent renewal. He served as Secretary, as Treasurer, and as Chair at crucial moments in the development of the IAAS, and, since 2011, had taken on the combined role of Membership Secretary and Treasurer. The continuity and even-handedness that he brought to all our discussions were important elements in the recent expansion of the IAAS’s membership and activities. For Tony, no distance was too great to bridge, no journey too far to travel to ensure the success of the Association. Apocryphal road trips were not confined to the USA: for the annual IAAS conference in Cork in 2005, Tony set off from Coleraine having finished his teaching at 6pm that Friday evening, travelling the length of Ireland to arrive at UCC shortly before midnight. Stragglers from the reception that evening as well as delegates the next morning shared a general sense of awe at Tony’s willingness to drive through at times atrocious conditions to take his seat at the conference and also, as ever, to offer his unique knowledge of constitutional affairs at the AGM.
Tony’s work with the Association was defined consistently by his openness to new ideas, by his willingness to work closely with a number of committees and by his incisive, gentle, sensible, and good-humoured contributions to discussions. The IAAS is a relatively small association and has managed to achieve a great deal on, often, limited resources. If it were not for the intelligence, enthusiasm and selflessness evident in all Tony accomplished and sought to accomplish, the IAAS would not have survived to become the organisation that it is today. I know I speak for everyone that has come into contact with Tony when I say that it has been a privilege to know him and to work with him. On a personal note, as the current IAAS Chair, he offered me nothing but total support and wise counsel over the last four years. None of our committee or association business shall ever be the same again.
It is for men like Tony Emmerson that the phrase a gentleman and a scholar was invented. He was an academics’ academic: dedicated to the study and teaching of his specialist subjects, to connecting through a community of scholars to the wider world, and to supporting the coming generations to realise their potential, the true measures of impact to which every academic should ever wish to aspire.
Tony is survived by his wife Mary, his sons Alan and Christopher, his daughter-in-law Miranda, and grandchildren Alice and Rosalind. His family has asked us to make well-wishers aware that donations to the Macular Society are gratefully received.