Obituary: Ward Elliott

Award-winning, longtime CMC professor, renowned scholar, author, polyglot

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

A renowned scholar of American government, constitutional law and the Supreme Court, Elliott joined CMC in 1968 at age 29 after earning three degrees from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Virginia. As the Burnet C. Wohlford Professor Emeritus of American Political Institutions for 49 years, he held the rare distinction of serving under all five CMC presidents.

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

His courses included American government, Constitutional law, politics of population, and crime and punishment, among others. A colleague described his teaching style as engaging students in analyzing problems rather than lecturing about what the problems were, making students think for themselves, not just giving them the answers.

He was one of the founders of the highly competitive PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics) honors program and was described as a lynchpin not only for his stellar teaching, but for creating bonds with students through Mt. Baldy hikes, singing parties, and rousing dinners at his home. Elliott used to say he was born to “discover things.” “Who was Shakespeare?” was a question that led him to create the Shakespeare Authorship Clinic, an experiment in infusing the use of computers into the humanities. He became a leader in the field, with his computer and math whiz collaborator, by using word frequency “writer fingerprint” programs that could reliably identify known Shakespeare and could be used to parse out which “maybe Shakespeare” were likely to be and which were not.

Influenced by having had asthma as a child, Elliott founded GASP, the Group Against Smog Pollution and lobbied for environmentally friendly reforms. He was also a member of the Coalition for Clean Air and the Planning and Conservation League. He’d lobbied since the 1970s for “hot lanes” on freeways, a concept that became the EZ Pass system.

Cap and trade emissions charges were also a passion. He published numerous articles in journals like, Ethics, Shakespeare Quarterly, Oxfordian, Tennessee Law Review, Computers in the Humanities, and the Transportation Quarterly. His book, “The Rise of Guardian Democracy,” was Harvard’s nomination for the Pulitzer Prize the year they published it. He was awarded The Outstanding Civilian Service Medal from the Department of the Army for developing the ROTC Academic Enrichment Program. He won the Roy C. Crocker Prize for Merit and was given the Distinguished Service Award from Claremont McKenna College for service to the college.

He enriched his life with extracurricular activities as well. He was a singer at heart, and sang with the Claremont Chorale, but also held highly popular singing parties every semester for students. Living three blocks from the campus made it easy for students to gather at his home for singing that went into the wee hours. He also was asked to be the “cultural attaché” for the rugby club when it toured and competed in Italy, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Argentina, and China.

He and Myrna, his wife of 53 years, often tagged on trips of their own for such adventures as climbing Mt. Roraima in Venezuela, popularized by Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” (which was put on his bucket list when read to him by his father at age 5). They also hiked the original 15th century trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in wooden dories, rode camels in Morocco, and snorkeled around the Galapagos Islands.

When he caught the whitewater rafting bug he aimed to raft a river for every letter of the alphabet. He made it for all but two, but he did raft the three most difficult whitewater rivers in the world: the Zambezi below Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe , the Rio Bio Bio in Chile before it was dammed, and the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.

Adrian Wood, Professor Emeritus of International Development at Oxford University, wrote, “The range of his professional activity was extraordinary, but even that was dwarfed by the range of his interests and general knowledge. There seemed to be nothing — no bit of history, no part of the world, no language, literature or culture — that had escaped his attention or slipped his memory. This made him great company and a great correspondent, and helps to explain what I guess to be the huge number of the people whose lives — like ours — he touched and influenced for the better in ways that they will always remember. I also admired his remarkable combination of great seriousness about things that mattered, both personal and political, and his acute sense and style of humor about almost everything else.”

Elliott was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of equally impressive parents, and grew up in an intergenerational household. His father, a Rhodes scholar, was a longtime Harvard government professor known as a Cold War warrior, and a military and strategic advisor to five presidents, as well as leader of the Harvard Summer School for emerging leaders of third world countries.

His mother, Louise, who was a “horse whisperer,” went to Pomona College, and took on the care of the extended family, which included parents, maiden aunts, stepchildren, and his younger brother. At the same time she was hosting dignitaries from around the world, as part of the Harvard social and diplomatic scene.

Elliott’s childhood was interrupted by a tuberculosis diagnosis that resulted in him being hospitalized for two years between the ages of 7 and 9. He missed most of elementary school and spent his hospitalized time reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The White Company” 26 times and Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” 13 times. He soon caught up with his education by attending the Deerfield Academy, where he excelled, especially in languages, including ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. This served him well when he was asked to jazz up CMC’s graduation ceremony and added a highly popular Latin oration, coaching the performing graduate and putting in inside jokes that 99% of the audience (but not the students) never got. Later he learned more languages: Russian when at Harvard, Korean when in the U.S. Army, and Spanish through listening to tapes while doing the evening dishes. To the end he delighted in addressing his foreign doctors in their native language.

Upon admission to Harvard he was honored as one of the 10 top students admitted in his class and graduated magna cum laude. He sang with the Harvard Glee Club, was a member of the Fox Club, and was a ROTC student.

After graduation in 1959, he served for two years as Order of Battle officer in the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division at the Korean DMZ. There he met C.D.B. Bryan (famous for his “Friendly Fire” book) and was a character in Bryan’s book about Korea, “P.S. Wilkinson.”

When he first met Myrna, he handed her the book and said, “I’m a character in this book. See if you can figure out who I am.” That got her attention, plus the fact that he proposed on their fourth date!

Elliott is survived by his wife, Myrna, who was introduced to him by Jil Stark. He called Jil every year on their anniversary to thank her. They have two sons, William, who writes television ads in San Francisco, and Christopher, who is an emergency room and an urgent care doctor in Hawaii. His sons fondly remember faculty and student dinners, trips to the family farm in Virginia, and family backpacking trips where they were reminded that the first rule of the trail was “no complaining!” Another admonishment was, “Life is like Latin: if it were easy the teacher would not have assigned it.”

For more information go to and search “Ward Elliott.”


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