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In Memoriam: Ben Hamill Procter (1927-2012)

 

by Ken Stevens

 

Ben Hamill Procter, a professor of history at TCU for forty-three years, from 1957 to 2000, died of complications of Parkinson’s Disease on April 17, 2012.  He is survived by his wife, Phoebe, and son, Ben, Jr.

 

No one who met him ever forgot Ben Procter.  For one thing, at 6 feet, 3 inches, he stood taller than most of us, but it was also the force of his personality.  Like Lyndon Johnson, another larger-than-life Texan, Ben would lean over you or put his hand on your shoulder while making a point.  You knew it when you received the “Procter Treatment.” 

 

Ben was raised in Austin, where his father, Leslie C., known as L.C., was superintendent of schools.  L.C. was a 1908 graduate of TCU and played baseball for the Frogs. Ben graduated from Austin High School in 1945, where he won All-State Honors as a center on the football team.  The Second World War was still on in the Pacific and like many of his generation he enlisted as soon as he graduated.  He served a year on the battleship Mississippi

 

After the Navy Ben entered the academic world.  He enrolled at the University of Texas where he majored in history while earning varsity letters in four sports.  He graduated in 1950, after taking courses with Walter Prescott Webb, with membership in Phi Beta Kappa.  As an end on the Longhorns football team, he averaged nearly 17 yards per catch helping UT win the Southwest Conference championship in 1950.  He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams but his career ended early due to injury, and he used the money he had earned to enroll in the history doctoral program at Harvard University, where he studied with Oscar Handlin.  One of his classmates at Harvard remembers that the graduate students were “scared to death of Handlin”—one of the most eminent historians in the country—except for Ben, who adopted an easy familiarity with his mentor.  I once repeated this anecdote to Ben who denied it, claiming that he was more afraid of Handlin than anyone else in the program.

 

Ben came to TCU in 1957. His first book, Not Without Honor: The Life of John H. Reagan (1962), was a study of the Texas congressman and Confederate Postmaster General; his last endeavor was a two-volume biography of  William Randolph Hearst published by Oxford University Press in 1998 and 2007. The culmination of his academic career, his Hearst biography was based on exhaustive research in archives in addition to the perusal of every issue of Hearst’s newspapers.  In between he wrote on the Texas Rangers, the Alamo, the Sharpstown Stock-fraud scandal, and an edited collection of essays on Texas history.

 

But most people will remember Ben as a teacher.  During his career he taught 10,000 students.  He had a well-deserved reputation as a strict taskmaster.   Students who missed six classes over the semester automatically failed.  Once, when I had the temerity to suggest that that seemed a bit harsh, he told me he owed it to the students’ parents.  He was beyond doubt the toughest grader in the history department, but despite that, students revered him and generations of them can recount stories and historical events he spoke about in class. Ben established the TCU chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honorary society, and served as its faculty advisor.  In addition, he traveled around the state helping other colleges and universities establish Phi Alpha Theta chapters.  In recognition of his efforts Phi Alpha Theta gives an award each year for the best research paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwest Social Science Association.  His doctoral students are located in universities all over Texas and they are all excellent teachers and scholars. And they all retain a fierce loyalty to him.

 

I’m convinced that Ben knew just about everybody in the world. In addition to teaching, he was active in Democratic politics, which gave him a wide circle of friends.  It has been a common experience for me when introduced to someone, no matter where I am, to have them say “TCU, that’s where Ben Procter taught.”  When my wife and daughter were having dinner at an Indian restaurant in London a few years ago, a couple at a nearby table picked up on their American accents and pleasantries were exchanged. When my wife explained they were from Texas, the couple said: “Texas. Do you know Ben Procter?”  When a mutual friend (a historian, of course) was visiting from Florida, Ben and Phoebe took us to the Petroleum Club for dinner. It was a revelation. Dozens of people, from Fort Worth’s best known citizens to waiters and busboys, came to the table to say hello and pass a few words.  About half-way through the evening, Ben got up and began visiting people around the room.  I don’t believe there was a person there who didn’t know him.  I have never forgotten that grand evening.  Our Florida friend and I have often talked about it and said we needed to do that again. I’m sorry that the opportunity to do that is gone.

 

Major Works by Ben Procter

  • William Randolph Hearst: The Later Years, 1911–1951. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863–1910. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.The Texas Ranger (with N.A. Jennings). St. Louis, MO: Lakeside Press (1992).
  • Texas under a Cloud (with Sam Kinch) Austin, TX: Jenkins Publishing Co. (1992).
  • The Battle of the Alamo. Austin, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 1986.
  • The Texas Heritage (with Archie P. McDonald) St. Louis, MO: Forum Press, 1980.
  • Not Without Honor: The Life of John H. Reagan. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962.