Valerie French, Associate Professor Emerita of History, passed away suddenly on December 8, 2011, at her home in Washington, DC. She was also President of the Board of Directors of the McLean Gardens Condominium Association and Treasurer and past president of the Washington Society of the American Institute of Archaeology. Valerie will be deeply missed by everyone who knew her during her many years of service at the University, McLean Gardens, and AIA Society.
Valerie was born on January 16, 1941 in Toledo, Ohio, and grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, graduating from Kingswood School, whose motto she took quite seriously: “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.” After earning a BA in chemistry at Cornell University, Valerie earned an MA and PhD in history at UCLA.
She first came to American University as a professorial lecturer in 1969 and taught until 2005, when she retired. Valerie single-handedly sustained the study of ancient history at AU. She taught a wide variety of courses, from Ancient Greece to Silent Peoples in Classical Antiquity to Historians and the Living Past to the equivalent of remedial math. She was the co-author, with Allan J. Lichtman of Historians and the Living Past: The Theory and Practice of Historical Study, published in 1978 and still in print. She pioneered the study of women and children in the ancient past, using artifacts along with written sources to sustain her scholarship. “An ancient historian,” Valerie said, “needs the imagination of James Joyce and the inferential skills of Sherlock Holmes, because the sources are so sparse and enigmatic.” She published articles on children in the ancient Mediterranean and on birth control, childbirth, midwives, early childhood, parenting, and sons and mothers in the ancient Near East. Along the way she also published challenging reinterpretations of Herodotus and Aristophanes (the last subtitled “Doting Dads: Adult Male Knowledge of Children).
“When I think of Valerie, of all the many things she loved and at which she excelled, first and foremost was her life as a teacher,” said History Department Chair Pam Nadell. Students, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the University repeatedly recognized and honored her gifted, collaborative, and Socratic teaching. She received awards in 1972-1973 from The American University Talon, CAS Dean’s Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1975, in 1978 and 1988 Outstanding Teaching and Service Awards from the Cap and Gown Chapter of Mortar Board, and the University’s Outstanding Teaching Award in 1986.
Generous in her service to the University community and as a creative administrator, Valerie served as Associate Dean for Curriculum in CAS, Director of Summer Sessions, and from 2001 to 2003 Chair of the Department of History. She was also Chair of the University Senate. She received the College of Arts and Sciences Faculty-Administrator Award in 1981 and the University Faculty-Administrator Award in 1982. In the mid 1990s, she established and directed Washington Internships for Native American Students. When the Smithsonian in 1995 abandoned plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Valerie stepped in and, after a journey to Hiroshima, brought to AU an extraordinary conference and exhibition on the bombing, participated in by numerous Hiroshima survivors. In recognition, the North American Association of Summer Sessions cited her for Creative and Innovative Programs.
As an active member of the McLean Gardens community, Valerie focused on making the condominium campus greener and McLean Gardens as a whole more sustainable. In this work, she had crafted alliances with programs and students at American University. She was elected to the condominium’s board of directors in 2009 and as president of the board this past October.
Valerie is survived by Robert L. Beisner of Washington, DC, her husband of thirty-five years, her brother John French of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, her daughter Signe Ann Williamson and grandsons Jack and Judd Linscott, of Falls Church, Virginia, and her son John French Allen of Washington, DC. She is also survived by her stepson John Brinton Beisner of Linden, Virginia, and stepdaughter Katharine Lee Beisner and her daughters, Ruby and Jane Ahlquist, of Austin, Texas, but Valerie never thought of them in terms of “steps.”