James William Newcomer: A Passionate, Lifelong Learner

By Mia Brady

An active member of Phi Beta Kappa for 79 remarkable years, James William Newcomer (FBK, Kenyon College, 1933) truly exemplified the spirit of inquiry, love of learning, and freedom of expression that Phi Beta Kappa so deeply values. In all of his 100 years, James never lost his passion for learning and took advantage of this passion in every facet of his life.

Born March 14, 1912 in Gibsonburg, Ohio, where he grew up, Newcomer attended Kenyon College as an undergraduate. At Kenyon, he was a member of their Phi Beta Kappa chapter, as well as the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. After graduating from Kenyon in 1933, Newcomer continued his education with an M.A. from the University of Michigan. After earning his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, Newcomer took an assistant head master position at Elgin Academy in Illinois, where he met his wife, Beulah Ruth Salisbury.

During Word War II, Newcomer put his education on hold to fight for his country. Serving as a first lieutenant in General Patton’s army, he fought in the battles of Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe. Participating in two liberations of Luxembourg in 1944 sparked an enduring interest in and passion for the tiny country.

Over the next forty years, Newcomer extensively researched the endurance and development of Luxembourg, which led to his book The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg: The Evolution of Nationhood 963 A.D. to 1938 (University Press of America, 1984). Newcomer’s book was the first full history of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in English and is considered to be one of the most thorough and accurate histories published about the country. When a second edition of the book was released in 1995, Newcomer was awarded the Commander of the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg for his impressive chronicling of the country.

After fighting in Word War II, Newcomer continued his career in academia. From 1946 to 1951 he served as the dean and head of the English department at Hockaday Junior College in Dallas. In 1952, he became the dean of the Faculty at Olivet College in Michigan, a position he held for eight years. He served as dean of the Graduate School at Texas Woman’s University from 1960 to 1964.

In 1965, Texas Christian University hired Newcomer as their vice chancellor of Academic Affairs. TCU benefited from Newcomer’s exceptional passion for education for nearly thirty years. Newcomer not only served as the vice chancellor of Academic Affairs, he directed the TCU Press and held the Trustees Chair of English.

A momentous impact that Newcomer had on TCU was the establishment of their Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1971, the fourth chapter to be established in Texas.

Throughout his career, Newcomer pursued his passion for acquiring and sharing knowledge. He loved to write and authored various books of poems, essays, and short stories. Newcomer found interest in eighteenth century Irish novelists and took to studying their forgotten works, as well as responding to poor reviews that he disagreed with. Newcomer wrote Maria Edgeworth the Novelist, 1767-1849, A Bicentennial Study (Texas Christian University Press, 1967) and a second volume on the same author, Maria Edgeworth (Bucknell University Press, 1975) as well as Lady Morgan the Novelist (Bucknell University Press, 1990).

A lover of music, Newcomer was known for bringing the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and pianist Lili Kraus, artist-in-residence, to TCU’s campus in Fort Worth in 1965. Kraus’ musical expertise brought recognition to the School of Music at TCU. Once Kraus joined the TCU community, she and Newcomer became close friends. He later wrote a memoir on the Hungarian pianist, Lili Kraus and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (Texas Christian University Press, 1997), based on journal entries written by Kraus during her time spent at TCU.

While he exercised his interests in eighteenth century Irish literature and music, Newcomer never lost interest in Luxembourg. In addition to The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Newcomer published a collection of essays on the small country, The Nationhood of Luxembourg (Centre National de Litterature, 1998). An extensive compilation of books on Luxembourg can also be found in TCU library thanks to Newcomer, a benefit for students and researchers for years to come.

James William Newcomer died on August 25, at the age of 100. The Phi Beta Kappa community and all that knew him, loved him, and worked with him will always remember Newcomer for his unparalleled passion for knowledge.

Mia Brady is a senior at Elon University majoring in English with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric. Elon is home to the Eta of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.