David J. Weber, distinguished SMU professor and historian, dies

SMU Professor David J. Weber, a leading scholar on the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, has died.

David Weber

DALLAS (SMU) — Southern Methodist University Professor David J. Weber, one of the nation’s leading scholars on the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, died August 20 of multiple myeloma.  He was 69.

Dr. Weber joined SMU’s Department of History in 1976 and chaired the Department from 1979 to 1986.  He also held the Robert and Nancy Dedman Chair in History in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. Weber was the founding director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU, part of the Clements Department of History, both endowed by former Governor William P. Clements and his wife, Rita.  The Clements Center for Southwest Studies is widely regarded as the leading institute for the study of the American West and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

In leading the History Department’s new Ph.D. program and the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, Weber was a mentor to numerous graduate students as well as post-doctoral fellows awarded stipends to conduct research and complete their manuscripts for publication through the Center.  Hundreds of other scholars throughout the world followed Weber’s work and learned from his publications.  He retired from teaching in spring 2010 but continued his research and writing.

As an internationally renowned scholar, David Weber “brought honor to SMU through his achievements,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “But he was also a dedicated teacher inspiring all levels of students, from undergraduates to post-doctoral fellows. He helped to shape the entire discipline of Southwest studies, leaving us with a greater understanding of our region’s history and cultures.”

“David Weber was not only one of the greatest historians of his generation, but also one of the most beloved,” said James K. Hopkins, long-time colleague and former chair of the Clements Department of History. “Colleagues, students, readers and friends around the world will mourn our loss today and for a long time to come. His life enlarged us all.”

Two governments gave Weber the highest honor they can bestow on foreigners: in 2002 King Juan Carlos of Spain named him to membership in the Real Orden de Isabel la Católica, the Spanish equivalent of a knighthood, and in 2005 Mexico named him to the Orden Mexicana del Águila Azteca (the Order of the Aztec Eagle). He was one of a few U.S. historians elected to the Mexican Academy of History.

 Honors in the United States included his 2007 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.           

“David Weber was a gentle man and a brilliant scholar. He was a visionary whose academic interest in the history of the Southwest was equaled only by his love for the region,” said George Bayoud of Dallas, long-time and immediate past chair of the Advisory Panel for the Clements Center for Southwest Studies.  “David built the Center into a thriving forum for research, dialogue and scholarship. Numerous books by emerging scholars have resulted from the time they spent under David’s guidance.  Those of us who worked with David on the Advisory Panel were honored and fortunate to spend time with him and learn from him.”

Weber was the author or editor of over 70 scholarly articles and 27 books, which have won numerous honors. Among them: 

  • Choice, a scholarly magazine, selected his Foreigners in Their Native Land:  Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans (University of New Mexico Press, 1973) as one of the Outstanding Academic Books of the year. 
  • The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846:  The American Southwest Under Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, l982) won six awards, including the Ray Allen Billington prize from the Organization of American Historians and the Co-founders Award from Westerners International. 
  • Richard H. Kern:  Expeditionary Artist in the Far Southwest, 1848-1853 (University of New Mexico Press & the Amon Carter Museum, 1985) received the 1985 Outstanding Art Book Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. 
  • The Spanish Frontier in North America (Yale University Press, 1992) was named one of the notable books of 1992 by The New York Times and won several awards, among them the "Spain and America" prize from the Spanish Ministry of Culture. In 2000 a Spanish language edition was published in Mexico City by the Fondo de Cultura Económica.
  • Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 2005) won the American Historical Association’s 2006 award “for the best publication in the history of Spain, Portugal, or Latin America.” 
  • The Spanish Frontier and Bárbaros were both History Book Club Selections.

Weber held fellowships from the Huntington Library (Times Mirror Distinguished Fellow), American Philosophical Society, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and the Lamar Center at Yale. 

In addition, he was elected to numerous scholarly societies, including the Texas Institute of Letters, the American Antiquarian Society, PEN, the Mexican Academy of History, and the Society of American Historians.  In recognition of bringing humane values to education, he was named a Danforth Associate.  He is past president of the Western History Association (1990-91) and of the Conference of U.S.-Mexico historians (1990). Most recently he had served on the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians and as the Vice President of the Professional Division of the American Historical Association.  In 2010 he received SMU’s Willis M. Tate Distinguished Teaching Award.

"David has left us, but his legacy for SMU and the historical profession lives on in his scholarship, his students and mentees, and the Clements Center,” said Benjamin Johnson, interim director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies.

Sherry Smith, associate director of the Clements Center and interim chair of the Clements Department of History, said, "What set David apart was that he matched his intellectual gifts (which were considerable) with generosity of time, genuine interest and commitment to colleagues and students. He achieved a great deal in his life. But he took equal pleasure in the achievements of others. His death is a huge loss to historians....and to the profession."

A native of Buffalo, New York, he earned a Ph.D. in Latin American history at the University of New Mexico. He also taught at San Diego State University (1967-76), at the Universidad de Costa Rica as a Fulbright Lecturer (1970) and at Harvard University as a visiting professor (2002). 

Dr. Weber is survived by his wife, Carol Bryant Weber of Dallas; son and daughter-in-law, Scott David Weber and Catherine D. Weber of Dallas; daughter, Amy Weber del Rio of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and grandchildren, Sarah Margaret Weber, 19, and Dickson Scott Weber, 14, both of Dallas, and Amaya Eloise del Rio, 10, of Colorado Springs. He also is survived by siblings, Judith Weber Anderson and husband, Andy, of Miami Springs, Florida; Donald Weber and wife, Giovanna, of Plymouth, Massachusetts; and Daniel Weber of Laos.

Plans for a service in Dallas are pending.

Memorial contributions should be sent to the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, SMU Office of Development, P.O. Box 281, Dallas, TX 75275, or the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.