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William J. Evitts, writer and historian, dies

William J. Evitts, a noted writer, editor and historian who was a former college professor, died Dec. 14 of pancreatic cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care. He was 68.

The son of a U.S. Department of Labor official and a homemaker, Dr. Evitts was born in Chicago and raised in Arlington, Va., where he graduated from Washington and Lee High School.

He earned his bachelor's degree in 1964 from the Johns Hopkins University and was a Thomas Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia, where he earned a master's degree in 1966. He earned his doctorate in history from Hopkins in 1971.

From the outset of his career, Dr. Evitts was the antithesis of the stuffy professional pedagogue.

Dr. Evitts joined the faculty of Hollins College, now Hollins University, in 1968, where he rose to become chairman of the history department, chairman of the American studies program and assistant to the president of the college.

"I think he was simply the best teacher I ever had in undergraduate and graduate school. He could make history come alive and was such a lively and engaging speaker. He could take what was dry as dust and make it interesting," said Gregory R. Weidman, former curator of the Maryland Historical Society, who is now curator of Hampton National Historic Site in Towson and Fort McHenry.

"He greatly influenced me and my love of history. There was great competition to get in Bill's History of the South class. Students were so anxious to take that class that it always quickly filled up," said Ms. Weidman. "He was everyone's favorite young professor and influenced hundreds of young women at Hollins."

While living in Roanoke, Va., Dr. Evitts became involved with public television station WBRA-TV, where he researched, wrote and narrated several documentary programs, including "The Shatter of Worlds," of which he was co-author, on the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.

He also was co-author and narrator of "Name it Roanoke," a centennial history, and hosted a phone-in public affairs show.

After leaving Hollins in 1983, Dr. Evitts returned to Homewood, where he was director of alumni relations at Hopkins for six years. From 1989 to 1991, he was senior vice president at Barton-Gillet Co., a regional marketing and communications firm.

Dr. Evitts returned to academia in 1991 when he joined the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he served as director of alumni relations until 2000, and also taught a wide variety of courses in American history and culture.

Returning to Baltimore in 2005, Dr. Evitts continued working as an independent writer and editor, and was an adjunct faculty member in American history at Hopkins, as well as at Towson University and Maryland Institute College of Art.

In a 2001 interview with Contemporary Authors Online, Dr. Evitts explained his life's work.

"My delight is to make good historical scholarship accessible to the general public, especially children," Dr. Evitts said in the interview. "This direction in my life grew out of a conviction that, while I lacked the patience for true, pathbreaking original scholarship, I was awfully good at synthesizing and explaining things."

Dr. Evitts was the author of three books: "A Matter of Allegiances: Maryland from 1850-1861," "Captive Bodies, Free Spirits: The Story of Southern Slavery" and "Early Immigration to the United States."

He was a frequent contributor to other books and a prolific author of scholarly articles, as well as a contributing editor to Urbanite magazine. He wrote book reviews and was a frequent contributor to the letters to the editor of The Baltimore Sun.

Dr. Evitts' editing responsibilities included the two-volume "Abraham Lincoln: A Life," which was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press three years ago, and "Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake," also published in 2007.

Dr. Evitts' last editing project was "Making History/Making Art," a history of the Maryland Institute College of Art, which was founded in the 1820s.

"There hadn't been a history of MICA, and the first thing I had to do was find a good editor. I needed someone who had a good working knowledge of the history of Baltimore and how the school related to the wider world," said Douglas L. Frost, former vice president of development at MICA and author of the book, which will be published early next year.

"A friend suggested Bill and said he'd be the perfect guy for the job and had it all. We started about three years ago, and he brought so much to the table. He was exactly what I needed and what the narrative needed," said Mr. Frost, who also praised Dr. Evitts' cheerful demeanor and dry wit.

Charles Mitchell, an editor and historian, became acquainted with Dr. Evitts when he was researching his 2007 book, "Maryland Voices of the Civil War."

"I stumbled across Bill's fine book, 'A Matter of Allegiances: Maryland from 1850-1861,' back in 1995 or so, when I was trying to gain traction of what became 'Maryland Voices,' " said Mr. Mitchell.

"I was struck by his statistical analyses of elections and voting records of that period; the extensive use of primary sources, such as newspapers; and his wonderfully fluid and clever writing style. The second half of the book was an invaluable source to me," he said.

"I wished I'd been a student of Bill's. But in a way, I was, and I'll always be grateful for that."

Robert J. Brugger, regional book editor for Hopkins Press and the author of "Maryland: A Middle Temperament 1634-1980," is an old friend who met Dr. Evitts on the basketball court at Hopkins.

"Tenacious on defense, wily on the attack, he used his elbows to good effect. We became instant friends. He was bright, gracious and fun-loving," said Dr. Brugger.

"He was a first-rate historian — with Jean Baker, one of the earliest professional historians to explore the politics of Maryland in the Civil War era, a rich lode if ever there was one — and a superb writer," said Dr. Brugger.

"He had a superb command of the material, a true gift for storytelling and a wit like a bullwhip," he said. "With friends, he could get going on a subject that warmed him, and soon everyone would be laughing helplessly. It was like watching Robin Williams make sport with a 19th-century topic."

Dr. Evitts was married in 1964 to the former Carole Allen.

"We met at a college mixer," said Mrs. Evitts.

Dr. Evitts, who lived in Guilford and was a former resident of Stoneleigh, was a member of the American Historical Association, Southern Historical Association, Maryland Historical Society and Phi Beta Kappa.

Plans for a memorial gathering to be held next month at the Johns Hopkins Club were incomplete Monday.

Also surviving are a son, Michael A. Evitts of Federal Hill; and a daughter, Elizabeth A. Evitts Dickinson of Hampden.

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