John Kirkland

The campus community mourns the passing of John Kirkland, who died on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. John retired in 2007 as Professor Emeritus of History after 42 years of service to Bucknell.

Included below is the complete text of the obituary, as provided by the family.

On behalf of our entire University community, I extend our deepest sympathies to John’s family, as well as to all who knew him at Bucknell.

John C. Bravman
President __________________________________________________________________________

John Kirkland, of Columbia, S.C., son of Mary Power Kirkland and John Dermont Kirkland, born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1939, died at home on August 11, 2020.

John earned his undergraduate degree from King College, master’s and Ph.D. in history from Duke University where he was a Teaching Fellow and a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. He joined the faculty at Bucknell University in 1965, where his special interests were European and American intellectual history; he retired in 2007 as professor emeritus. He served as chair of the Bucknell History Department and was on the editorial board of Bucknell University Press and of the Human Studies Journal.

John described his life’s work as trying to understand how people make sense of their lives. He believed that one could not be a good teacher without being a lifelong learner, and he was passionate about both. He saw teaching as a collaboration with his students and his faculty colleagues, all learning together.

An insatiable learner, he built a significant and wide-ranging library covering intellectual, cultural and political history; philosophy from the Greeks to the present; critical and literary theory, and poetry. A master teacher, he was able to connect with each student generation and spent as much time with students in independent studies and advising honors theses as he did in the formal classroom.

When John retired in 2007 after 42 years of teaching at Bucknell, his colleagues collected letters to him from former students of the 60s through the ‘00s. Some sent papers they’d written for him or book lists he’d given them 40 years ago and still treasured. Some wrote they had chosen to follow John in academic careers; all wrote of how he had changed their lives by pushing them harder than they’d thought possible and modeling a profound commitment to critical thinking and intellectual honesty no matter the subject or career path chosen.

When he wasn’t teaching, he loved reading, writing poetry, classical and contemporary music, tennis, golf and European travel, especially to his beloved Paris.

At his core was his love for his wife and children, unconditional and unfailing. Sara, his wife of 37 years, was the love of his life and one of the people he respected most in the world. In 1964, he dedicated his dissertation to his three-year-old daughter, Kimberly, in the hope that she too would find that “intellectual activity is a moral endeavor”.

He is survived by his wife, Sara Gleaton Kirkland; daughter, Kimberly Kirkland and her husband, Randolph Reis; grandsons, Evan and Liam Kirkland Grennon; mother-in-law, Janette Gleaton, sister- and brother-inlaw, Lynn and Edward Leslie.

His son, Erik Kirkland, died on active duty in a Marine helicopter crash in 1996. His sister, Bobbie Kate King, and his parents also pre-deceased him.

Gifts in his memory may be made to the Erik Kirkland Memorial Scholarship at Susquehanna University, c/o Development Office, 514 University Ave., Selinsgrove, PA 17870.

Memories may be shared at

4 Responses to “John Kirkland”

  1. peeler says:

    John was a close friend and colleague throughout my tenure at Bucknell. The obituary notes, correctly, that he thought it essential to study and learn throughout life. He was one of my teachers through all those years. I learned from him.

  2. delsandr says:

    I always joked that my History BA at Bucknell was a Professor Kirkland degree. I think I took every class that he offered. His impact continues to influence my work today as a teacher and scholar at Bucknell.

  3. rrichrds says:

    John Kirkland was a wonderful mentor and friend to me when I first started teaching at Bucknell. He helped me with the development of my University Course “Art and Politics”, shared his insights about teaching with me and presented a guest lecture in the class. I will always treasure my friendship with John.

  4. greaves says:

    John was a consummate scholar of his subject matter. He engendered deep respect among his students for his easy approachability, his unwavering commitment to the enlightenment of his students, his readiness to give his time and full attention to an inquiring student regardless of his own schedule commitments, and the clarity with which he explained complex ideas to his students and colleagues.

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