In memoriam: Professor Ward Elliott, a true renaissance man

Prof. Elliott stands at a podium to deliver a lecture.
December 14, 2022
Remembering Ward

The CMC community is coming together on Saturday, February 11 to celebrate the extraordinary life of Prof. Ward Elliott. The celebration will begin at 2 p.m. at McKenna Auditorium, with a reception following. For those unable to attend in person, please join us virtually.


“It didn’t feel like the start to the academic year until Ward had led the entire community in singing the alma mater at Convocation. He was instrumental in building the PPE program, beloved by generations of students.”

Heather Antecol
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty
Boswell Professor of Economics


“Ward was the linchpin of CMC’s PPE program. He made it the tight-knit community it has always been. He did that, not only through stellar teaching characterized by wry, probing humor and penetrating insight, but also by hiking Mt. Baldy with his students, making music with them at his famous ‘singing parties,’ providing—with Myrna’s steadfast support—warm hospitality at ‘Toad Hall,’ his College Avenue home, and keeping in contact with every PPE alum through his prodigious email correspondence. His care for the CMC students he taught is legendary. His impact on them—and on his PPE teaching colleagues—is everlasting.”

—John Roth
Edward J. Sexton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy


“Ward engaged students in analyzing problems rather than lecturing about what the problems were. He made students think for themselves; he didn’t give them the answers. Ward was such a broad-ranging man, and he and Myrna were very generous people. We all had a great time together over the years.”

—Gordon Bjork
Jonathan B. Lovelace Professor Emeritus


“Ward was not just a great CMC-loving professor. He was also more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Over the decades, he provided encouragement and advice as I pursued public service. I miss him. He truly was one of a kind.”

—Hon. David Dreier ’75
CMC Trustee


“Professor Ward Elliott was one of my favorite professors, but he taught me even more outside of the classroom. When I was a stress case over my thesis, he would crack a joke to put me at ease. When I wanted to be a dork and study on a weekend, he’d rope me in to a sing-along at his house. He was a serious intellectual, yet one who never took things too seriously. He taught me and others a lot about how to enjoy life, whether it was reading a book or strumming a guitar.”

—Paul Novak ’86


“Elliott was the impresario behind the Latin Oration, which was a colorful fixture at CMC’s Commencement exercises for five decades. He would help select the seniors who were to give the oration and help them write it and memorize it. It was a big deal for students.”

—John Faranda ’79
CMC’s Ambassador-at-Large


“He cultivated a sense of camaraderie and belonging among his students, and he had wide-ranging interests that ran far beyond politics.”

—Professor George Thomas
Burnet C. Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions
Director, Salvatori Center


"An insight into Ward Elliott's character and values: On one of the annual PPE hikes up Mt. Baldy...in the 1990s...we were returning from the summit along "the Devil's backbone" - a narrow ledge that runs along the top of the Baldy bowl...a 45 degree slope of loose scree. Doris Drucker, wife of Peter was in our group and tripped, with fatigue and tumbled about 10 feet down the precipitous slope before arresting her fall. She was in mortal peril. Without a thought for his own safety, Ward Elliott plunged after her and caught hold of her. The two of them were subsequently rescued by student Travis Anders and Professor Gordon Bjork who threw them a line and backstopped it. The significance of the incident was Elliott's concern for the well-being of another human being...without concern for his own. It is in moments of crisis that the true character of a man emerges."

—Gordon Bjork
Jonathan B. Lovelace Professor Emeritus


“I want to express my deepest sympathies to the entire CMC family at his loss; he will be greatly missed.

As a CMC '81 graduate, I had the privilege of attending several classes with Professor Elliott in my Dual major of Economics and Political Science. I always looked forward to my classes with him to receive his insights, his questions, his wisdom, his probity, and above all, his entertaining wit. He was truly a stellar personality on the CMC campus.

I remember so many happy times not only in his classroom, but also visiting at his home at the many celebrations with singing and camaraderie. He challenged his students in the classroom with his Socratic teaching approach, and he rewarded them in his home with his undying friendship and fellowship. He was a very endearing and caring man.”

—Rev. David Quintana ‘81


If you would like to share your memories of Ward, please send them to us at PublicAffairs@cmc.edu.

Ward Elliott, a beloved Claremont McKenna College (CMC) professor who inspired the minds and spirits of generations of students through his teaching, mentorship, and sing-along parties at his home, died on December 6, 2022, at age 85.

A renowned scholar of American government, constitutional law, the Supreme Court, and the economy, Elliott joined CMC in 1968 after earning three degrees, including his Ph.D. from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Virginia. He was just 30 years old when he was recruited to CMC by founding President George C.S. Benson to join the faculty and serve as the founding director of the Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World. Elliott held the rare distinction of serving under all five CMC presidents.

“Ward Elliott was a giant, the CMC exemplar. Every student, a young leader to mentor. Each Socratic class, no question too provocative to pose. No pressing problem outside the reach of his erudition and commitment to solve,” said CMC President Hiram E. Chodosh. “He embodied CMC with an enthusiasm and dynamism, beyond measure.”

Elliott was an inaugural professor in the College’s highly selective Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program, which he co-founded in 1985 with John Roth, Edward J. Sexton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, and Gordon Bjork, Professor Emeritus who was the inaugural Jonathan B. Lovelace Professor of Economics. Elliott often commented that he loved teaching in the program because it created a “very tight-knit community.” His colleagues felt the same way about him.

Black and white photo of Prof. Ward Elliott sitting in his office with his canine companion.

“Ward was the linchpin of CMC’s PPE program,” said Roth. “He made it the tight-knit community it has always been. His care for the CMC students he taught is legendary. His impact on them—and on his PPE teaching colleagues—is everlasting.”

PPE co-founder Bjork recalled that the three leaders had “distinctive approaches with Ward being a Socratic teacher, making him perfect for PPE. He made students think for themselves; he didn’t give them the answers.” Their friendship extended outside of the classroom as well for nearly 50 years.

As the Burnet C. Wohlford Professor Emeritus of American Political Institutions, Elliott maintained a special relationship with Wohlford Hall alumni from the early 70s which he actively maintained, hosting a gathering with this group at “Toad Hall,” his College Avenue home, during Alumni Weekend this past May. He was named an Honorary Member of the CMC Class of 1974.

Deeply respected by his fellow faculty members, Elliott served as a mentor to many. “To me, Elliott brings to mind the virtues of the small liberal arts college and had wide-ranging interests that ran far beyond politics,” said Professor George Thomas, when he followed Elliott as the Burnet C. Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions.

“Ward was the embodiment of a Claremont McKenna College faculty member. He was not only a world-class scholar, but maintained positive relationships with countless students over his time at CMC,” said CMC Trustee James McElwee ’74 P’12. “On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I want to express our deep sense of loss on the passing of Professor Elliott.”

For more than half a century—70% of the College’s existence—Elliott immersed himself in intellectual and cultural life on campus, becoming an integral part of the College’s fabric, along with his wife of 53 years, Myrna Elliott.

Jil Stark ’58 GP’11 “takes supreme pleasure” in having introduced Myrna and Ward in the 60s, saying, “Ward and Myrna were completely suited to one another; they were completely in tune, and very much in love. She made Ward so happy. Want to know why I know? Every year on their wedding anniversary, even if they were in Borneo, Ward would call me and thank me for introducing him to ‘that wonderful Myrna, the love of my life.’”

When he first arrived at the College, which was then Claremont Men’s College, he quickly forged friendships with faculty members, staff, and students that lasted well after he attained emeritus status upon his retirement. Always interested in expanding friendships, he also frequently wandered around the other Claremont campuses making collegial connections.

For decades, Elliott spent countless hours advising students on their theses, writing impactful and consequential letters for recommendations, and prepping Truman Scholar candidates, which resulted in several CMC students earning the prestigious scholarship or being named as finalists. He also provided the intellectual component at many Claremont Men’s Rugby events, including international tours.

His 1975 work on political representation, The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court's Role in Voting Rights Disputes 1875-1969 (Harvard University Press and its nomination for the Pulitzer Prize), earned praise and distinction from several highly respected scholars, including Gilbert Cuthbertson, longtime Rice University political science professor, who called it, “Brilliant, devastating, one of the most significant contributions to legal theory and constitutional history in 20th-century scholarship.”

Elliott earned several accolades over the years, including the prestigious Roy C. Crocker Prize for Merit in 1984 and CMC’s Presidential Award for Merit in 1999.

He was known for his engaging sense of humor, compiling his witticisms in Elliott’s Laws, which includes such quips as, “You are only middle-aged once,” and “Life is like Latin. If it were easy, the teacher never would have assigned it.”

Elliott had a lifelong love of Shakespeare—he often spoke excitedly about the 16th-century English playwright with students and community members. He worked with students to launch CMC’s Shakespeare Clinic, where student-led teams focused on authenticating works attributed to the playwright. He also promoted the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, spending decades investigating the authorship of plays and poems associated with Shakespeare and publishing prodigiously in the field.

Professor Ward Elliott photographed holding a guitar.

Elliott was also a voracious music lover. He played the guitar with students on campus during lunch and hosted regular singing parties at his home—something that Paul Novak ’86 deeply appreciated as a student. “Professor Ward Elliott was one of my favorite professors, but he taught me even more outside of the classroom,” Novak said. “He taught me and others a lot about how to enjoy life, whether it was reading a book or strumming a guitar.”

Elliott first arrived at CMC in 1968 after earning multiple degrees following his military service, which included Officer in Charge, Eighth U.S. Army Order of Battle War Room, Korea from 1960-61, which led him to become a lifelong supporter of CMC’s Army ROTC unit. In appreciation, the Army awarded him the outstanding Civilian Service Medal for developing the ROTC Academic Enrichment Program.

Even after retirement, Elliott remained active at CMC, regularly participating in Athenaeum events, alumni dinners, reunions, and faculty installations, and hosting singing parties for alumni during Alumni Weekend. He most recently attended an Athenaeum dinner with the Dreier Roundtable, catching up with former students Steve Bullock ’88 P’24 and CMC Trustee David Dreier ’75, as well as faculty, friends, and alumni.

“Professor Elliott mixed academic dedication with the pursuit of fun unlike anyone else at CMC,” said Bullock, Montana State Governor, 2013-2021. “His irrepressible mirth made him a favorite Ath dining companion, hike leader, and host of dinners and singing parties. From the opening PS 20 class to our PPE seminars, extending to notes of encouragement decades after graduation, he had a continuing influence on my life. Professor Elliott will be missed by generations of CMC students, and we students hold Myrna and his family in our hearts.”

Elliott is survived by his beloved wife Myrna Elliott; his son, William, and daughter-in-law, Elodia Villaseñor, and William’s children, Wes Elliott and Andrew Elliott; his son, Christopher; his brother, David Elliott, an emeriti political science professor from Pomona College, and sister-in-law, Mai Elliott.

To make a gift in honor of Ward, his family asks that all donations be directed to the College’s PPE program through the CMC Giving page. Please contact Bob Knuth at bob.knuth@cmc.edu with any questions. A memorial service will be held on the CMC campus on Saturday, February 11, 2023, at 2 pm. The celebration will begin at 2 p.m. at McKenna Auditorium, with a reception following. For those unable to attend in person, please join us virtually.

To read Ward’s obituary in the Claremont Courier, click here.

Gilien Silsby

Contact

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Media inquiries: Gilien Silsby
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Email: gsilsby@cmc.edu