Donald Blackmer, Professor of Political Science Emeritus at MIT, died on August 14, 2020. He was an esteemed scholar and an extraordinary steward of institutions and people.
Tributes from his colleagues and students are featured below. His MIT obituary is available here.
"Don was intensely loyal to his colleagues and to the Center—the sort of colleague one could trust and rely upon, even after retirement." (Richard Samuels, director of CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science) Read his tribute below
"In all of these professional interactions, I knew implicitly that I was dealing with an individual of impeccable commitment to the task at hand." (Gene Skolnikoff, Professor of Political Science Emeritus) Read his tribute here
"Don was a builder of people. His humility, kind humor, patience, intellect, and elegant behavior were examples to me of what I could become." (Astrid Tuminez, PhD '96; president of Utah Valley University) Read her tribute here
"I think it’s fair to say that he played the biggest role of my committee in making the final project stronger and in helping me get done." (Brian Taylor, PhD '97; professor of political science, Maxwell School, Syracuse University) Read his tribute here
In a sense, Don was of another era and place than most of his students and colleagues. Certainly he was not the sort of person I had ever encountered before coming to MIT. I mean, I was born in Brooklyn, while Don was an Andover and Harvard grad with two middle initials! He even studied at Harrow. His pedigree notwithstanding, though, Don never assumed a patrician’s airs. He was always modest and entirely supportive of students and colleagues.
A Russian history and literature major, he was also genuinely curious about the greatest challenge of his day—the Soviet Union and international communism.
Don was a fine scholar. He wrote a widely cited book on the international relations of the Italian Communist Party, and co-authored a book with Max Millikan on US foreign aid. He also published on the French communist party and on the Soviet Union. But, on his own account, scholarship was not his primary calling.
He was an institution builder. In 1956, he turned down a job offer to work as an assistant to McGeorge Bundy at Harvard, to come down river to MIT to serve as a deputy to Max Millikan and Walt Rostow—the powerful founders of the MIT Center for International Studies. As executive director of the young CIS, he made it possible for them and those he helped them recruit to light up the scholarly landscape.
In that role he was part of an enormously creative scholarly group—an “A Team” recruited by Millikan and Rostow and others that included Ithiel de Sola Pool, Lucian Pye, Bill Kaufmann, Myron Weiner, Daniel Lerner—all of whom were inventing subfields of political science, such as “communist studies” and “international communications.” Together these scholars put their shoulders to the service of broadening the intersection of comparative politics and foreign policy studies.
And when he wasn’t building institutions, he was fixing them. He accepted the (usually) thankless job of Associate Dean in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and before he could fully settle into that role—and since no good deed goes unpunished—Don was assigned by MIT’s president and provost—its 1970s “dynamic duo” of MIT President Jerry Weisner and Provost Walter Rosenblith—to put a wounded and divided unit in the school of Humanities and Social Sciences back on track. Don was just too good an administrator and too generous a colleague to say “no” often enough for his own interests.
Soon after I joined the faculty, Don was just about to become head of the Department of Political Science—and my most cherished moment with him was when he conveyed the news that I would be tenured. I could feel the sincere enthusiasm he had for—and the pride he took in—the success of others, particularly junior scholars.
Don was intensely loyal to his colleagues and to the Center—the sort of colleague one could trust and rely upon, even after retirement. I was particularly grateful to him for dedicating much of two years to the preparation of a valuable history of the Center’s founding generation: The MIT Center for International Studies: The Founding Years, 1951-1969. He gave us a record—a clear window on the important role so many of our predecessors and colleagues played in understanding the transformation of world politics and how, during the Vietnam War, they dealt with the controversies related to the role of the CIA in the Center’s early years.
Here is a 2010 interview of Don conducted by Karen Arenson, an alumna, that captures Don’s modesty, thoughtfulness, and generosity beautifully: https://infinitehistory.mit.edu/video/donald-lm-blackmer
He will be missed.
It is difficult for me to write a remembrance of reasonable length for Don Blackmer. Our professional lives and our families were so intermingled that the story is almost endless; the very writing of a remembrance calls forth memories and incidents that are no longer at the surface of our memories. But, most of all, what IS dominant is the sense of a man of uncommon good sense and warmth. We think of him often in our daily activities and sorely miss him.
The beginning of our friendship was, not surprisingly, our intersecting careers at MIT. But, that broadened into frequent travel and hiking adventures. Don joined my wife and me on trips to a multitude of different sites: hiking in the American and Canadian Rockies and Switzerland, visits to Colorado and Utah Indian lands, hiking in Cornwall and the Lake District, tourist travel in Italy, and two magical weeks in New Zealand. He and I even took a memorable seven-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
At MIT, Don’s and my careers frequently interacted, as he moved from the early days of the Center for International Studies, in which he had a seminal role, to leadership roles in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), a program he headed when it was first created. He succeeded me as head of the Political Science Department when I became Director of the Center. And, when he was the associate dean for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, under Dean Harry Hanham, I necessarily dealt with him frequently.
In all of these professional interactions, I knew implicitly that I was dealing with an individual of impeccable commitment to the task at hand. Don sometimes, when confronted with a new idea or a new departure from the norm, would start with a questioning attitude: “convince me” or “lay it out more”. His uncertainty was often justified, but when he accepted an argument, he was quick to support those asking for his agreement or participation. We focused on different subjects in our scholarship and teaching, so on that score there was little overlap. But I was well aware of Don’s sterling reputation among political science students as a valued teacher and role model as well as a warm friend to those students who sought his counsel. Moreover, Don was always a committed and reliable member of the faculty, a person you could rely on to avoid personal entanglements and petty disagreements. A trait that as an occasional academic administrator I valued highly.
In some ways, Don was a curious fit to be successful in an MIT setting. He had a strong literature and humanities background, with little exposure to science and technology. He came to MIT to work with and assist the economist Max Millikan in the creation and development of what became the Center for International Studies. His success in that role and in subsequent positions he was asked to fill, showed to the MIT leadership how able Don was to lead and build in an environment that was foreign to his original education or experience. It was a record of stable and often imaginative stewardship in an institution focused on subjects I’m sure Don never expected to be a part of.
I and my family have missed him deeply as he became ill and moved from the immediate area. He was a major part of my professional career and of our family’s life. Our daughter thinks of him as an uncle, and Don’s son, Steve, who became a minister, married her in our living room some years ago. The only stain on my remembrance of Don is that our frequent squash games ended too often in his victory.
From the beginning, Don was my champion. It was 1988, I was 24, and had just completed my master’s in Soviet Studies at Harvard. What next? That question was soon resolved when I got a call that someone named “Professor Don Blackmer” at MIT wanted to meet with me. This was serious, I thought. I had applied to the political science PhD program, but was unsure if I could get in or fund my way.
I took the train to Kendall Square, found E-53, and made my way to Don’s office. “Donald L. M. Blackmer, Department Chair,” the sign read on the door. Those middle initials made me nervous, but I needn’t have been. Don, I soon realized, was one of those people whose kind, gentle and elegant manners would put anyone at ease. He told me he’d like to see me come to MIT and that, between a teaching assistantship with him and an SSRC fellowship, I should be able to go to school without starving. I was so grateful and excited!
During the two years that I did course work at MIT, Don was a steady mentor, academic adviser, listener, feedback-giver, and, ultimately, friend. I remember turning 25 and going to his office. “Don, I’m getting so old and I don’t even know what thesis I’m going to write.” I was nearly in tears. Don just laughed softly and reminded me that, age-wise, I’d never catch up to him. He helped me think through my ideas. When we talked about my doing a thesis on Soviet policy in the Third World, he was supportive. And when I said (after a first draft chapter) that I would put the thesis on hold to go work in Moscow for Harvard, he was also supportive. His field of Italian communism was far from the thesis (and book) I eventually wrote on Russian nationalism, but we always had much to talk about. I lived in Russia for almost two years, and when I returned to Cambridge every other month to connect with colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School, Don and I often met and talked about Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Yavlinksy, Gaidar and all the movers and shakers of the late-Soviet and post-Soviet periods. He was alwaysinterested. He always listened. He wanted to know how my work was progressing in strengthening democratic institutions in the Soviet Union. And, when the time came, he read the entire draft of my Ph.D. thesis, giving me many useful comments to improve my work.
As his teaching assistant, I enjoyed attending Don’s lectures on Communism, Revolution and Reform. He was a lucid lecturer and helped me better understand the narrative and theoretical arcs of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet history and politics. After he stepped down from his department chair role, I continued to visit him in the corner office where Lucian Pye and Lincoln Bloomfield also had offices. These men were giants to me. They seemed to have an other-worldly air about them. They seemed to understand more deeply and instinctively the geopolitical world I lived in because they were there when the Cold War began and intensified. They wrote important books and articles. They helped shape the thinking of a host of scholars, students, and policy-makers.
Don had a beautiful farm in Tunbridge, Vermont, where he spent summers and planted a vegetable garden. I visited him a few times, swam in the pond next to his red cottage, learned what a compost was. I met Joan, his wife, and two of his three children at different times. It was from his little garden that I first ate organic vegetables and discovered that carrots, dill and broccoli had distinctive, pleasant tastes! Don liked the Filipino food I made. He always enjoyed a bourbon or whisky before dinner. We would talk about politics, history, books, my career, life. When I had my first two children in New York City, they, too, eventually, got to know the Tunbridge farm, “Uncle Don,” the maple trees, and cows. Don liked taking his visitors on walks at the farm. A highlight of one of those walks was running into retired dairy farmer Fred Tuttle, famous protagonist of the hilarious 1998 mockumentary “Man with a Plan.” Fred ran an unforgettable campaign for the U.S. Senate, with humorous twists and turns based on the premise that a retired dairy farmer should run for office because it was easier and paid better than farming!
Recently, I came across a hardbound copy of Bertram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution on my bookshelf. This was one of the books I took from Don’s office as he was preparing to retire. He told me I could take anything off his shelves. That generosity was a hallmark of our long relationship. I remember dinners at the Charles Hotel, the gentrifying Central Square, and Don’s home in Concord, where he showed me how to cook salmon in a microwave. Over those years and our encounters, which I was always eager to organize regardless of where I lived in the world, Don continued to be a patient listener and wise counselor. He taught me not to worry too much about questions like, “Will my eldest daughter get into Harvard?” (She did not, but has been happy as a global farmer and jiujitsu student.)
Don lived an active and healthy lifestyle, playing tennis into retirement. He hiked New Zealand for an entire month, and many other places in the U.S. When I lived in Moscow in the early 1990’s, I persuaded him to visit. The Soviet Union had disintegrated by then, and a new Russia was taking shape. Don and I explored old estates, museums and the streets of Moscow. My friend and fellow graduate student, Brian Taylor, came with us on some of those excursions. Don met all my Russian best friends and, much as he enjoyed the visit, he seemed also quietly overwhelmed by the magnitude of change that characterized the nation, state, and people that was the subject of both our scholarly lives.
When I lived in Asia for 13 years, I tried to call Don every July on his birthday. I’d be in Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hong Kong, or somewhere else. I was working for Microsoft at one point, overseeing government and legal affairs in fifteen countries. What I was doing probably made no sense to Don, but he would listen to my stories and encourage me. At one point, however, he sounded tired and said, “Astrid, I can’t keep up with you.” I invited him many times to visit me in Asia, but we both missed that opportunity. In a 2016 email, he mentioned that he was no longer allowed to drive; in his words, “I’m no longer in full control of where and when I am. One of the prices of growing old!” I felt such a deep sadness.
In August 2018 I returned to the US with my family to start a job as a university president. One of my priorities was to see Don. I was able to visit him and his oldest son, Stephen, in New Hampshire in September 2018. I was overjoyed to see him one last time.
Don was a builder of people. His humility, kind humor, patience, intellect, and elegant behavior were examples to me of what I could become. He shaped my life in significant ways. I called him “Professor Blackmer” for years (having grown up in Asia, it seemed to me disrespectful and presumptuous to call an esteemed professor by their first name). He finally asked me to just call him Don. So I did. He became my beloved professor, mentor, and friend. My life will always be greater and richer because he was in it.
I was a PhD student in the MIT political science department (1989-1997) and Don was a member of my dissertation committee.
I came to MIT to be part of the Security Studies Program, the program formerly known as Defense and Arms Control Studies (DACS). A particular draw was the Soviet Security Studies Working Group, led by Steve Meyer. I must admit that, when I entered MIT in 1989, I did not even know who Don Blackmer was; this was before departments had webpages that one could peruse before applying. Yet Don would have as big an influence on my career as any professor at MIT.
My one and only class with Don was his graduate seminar on Soviet politics, which I took in Spring 1990. I thought I was pretty versed in the topic, because I came in with an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Russian and Soviet History and Politics. Yet in Don’s seminar I came to much more fully appreciate how a comparative politics approach complemented a deep grounding in area studies (in my view, both are important and necessary). My LSE degree had prepared me with respect to area studies, but Don and other MIT faculty like Lucian Pye helped me to start understanding the field of Soviet studies more as a comparative political scientist.
By the time I took Don’s seminar, he had long since shifted his focus to Eurocommunism, especially Italian and French communism. But he was up to date with the Soviet studies literature, and was just as captivated as everyone else by the revolutionary changes launched by Mikhail Gorbachev under the banner of Perestroika. At the time I found it a bit curious that someone trained in Russian and Soviet studies would study West European communist parties. I actually never asked him about it, but later I concluded that this was an act of singular genius. I was particularly struck by this thought when doing fieldwork in the Soviet Union and Russia in the early 1990s (including with the support of MIT’s Center for International Studies)–why didn’t I study someplace with better climate, food, and basic amenities?
Don’s most significant influence on me came in two other ways. First, Don was not the chair of my dissertation, but I think it’s fair to say that he played the biggest role of my committee in making the final project stronger and in helping me get done. By the time I finished my field work and began writing, my chair Steve Meyer had shifted his focus away from the Soviet and then Russian military to US environmental policy, and I was his last student writing a dissertation on Russia. My third reader, Barry Posen, quite reasonably made clear from the beginning that he would give the finished thesis one good read at the end, but given the topic –military coups and non-coups in Russian and Soviet history – he would not be giving feedback on each draft chapter along the way. It was Don who closely read each chapter as I produced it and gave me detailed and actionable recommendations on how to revise the chapter. This feedback gave me the confidence to keep pushing ahead on a project that at times seemed unmanageable and never-ending. Don was there throughout – even after he retired – to make sure the dissertation was in “good enough” shape.
The second major influence Don had on me was simply in the way he carried himself and behaved towards other people, whether students or colleagues or staff. In my experience he was always kind, decent, soft-spoken, and composed. He also was very patient when chapters didn’t arrive on time. I even remember hearing from a fellow student that Steve Van Evera suggested that male students model their professorial fashion after Don–he did really look the part. Don’s way of carrying himself in the classroom and in the department made him a very positive role model for me. I am grateful to him for that.