Deceased February 23, 2017

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50th Reunion Book Entry

In Memory

David Keightley developed a rare combination of knowledge and skills to become a leading scholar of early Chinese history. He was able to uncover China’s distant past—more than 3,000 years in the past—by decoding inscriptions on animal bones unearthed in archeological digs.

David died in his sleep in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 23. He was 84.

From 1969 to 1998, David taught early Chinese history at UC Berkeley. In reporting David’s death, his history department colleagues remembered him as a “scholar of great imagination and range.”

They said: “He was a scholar of towering erudition, one of the first Western historians to master the oracle bone inscriptions and archeological remains that are the primary sources for the history of Bronze Age China.”

David continued his research as a professor emeritus, winding up as author of six books and numerous articles. In our 50th reunion book, he explained why he kept going: “I have invested too much in learning modern Chinese, Classical Chinese, Shang (Dynasty) Chinese, modern scholarly Japanese and the whole field, both archeological and historical … to want to turn away from it now, indeed nothing interests me as much.”

David was born in London and experienced the Blitz in his youth. His family moved to the United States in 1947, and he completed his secondary education at Evanston High School, north of Chicago. At Amherst, he was president of the Lord Jeff Club and graduated magna cum laude with a major in English.

In 1986, David received a McArthur “genius” award and used some of the money to buy a hand-crafted Italian bicycle to further his passion for long-distance bike riding.

David is survived by his wife, Vannie; and two sons, Steven and Richard.

George Gates ’53

50th Reunion 

My secondary education was at Aldenham Public school in Elstree, Hertfordshire, and then, after my family moved to the US in 1947, at Evanston Township High School, north of Chicago. My graduate education (after a Fulbright at the Universite de Lille and interrupted by several years of working) was at New York University (M.A., 1956) and Columbia University (Ph.D., 1969). Apart from experiencing the Blitz in England, I saw no military service; I had suffered a series of lung collapses while at Amherst, which made me 4F.

Between 1954-55 I was an Associate Editor with the textbook publisher, Row, Peterson, in Evanston. I was an Editor at the World Publishing Company in New York City from 1957 to 1960. I was then self-employed as a free-lance writer between 1960-62. I taught early Chinese history at the University of California, Berkeley from 1969 to 1998, where I am now Professor Emeritus. I was recalled to serve as Interim Director of Berkeley's East Asian Library in 1999-2000.

Yes, I would do it over again if I had the choice. Certainly, I wish in my lighter moments that I could have been a folk singer like Pete Seeger, but there has been a good match between my talents and my professional career. I have, I think, through teaching and publishing, made some major contributions to the scholarship on the origins of Chinese civilization; that has been rewarding and absorbing. I retired, in fact, so that I could get on with the work, hoping to publish an additional series of books and articles before I die. I have also continued to teach seminars about early Chinese inscriptions, as a visiting professor, at various major universities. I have invested too much in learning modern Chinese, Classical Chinese, Shang Chinese, modern scholarly Japanese, and the whole field, both archaeological and historical, of Shang studies (ca. 1200 B.C.), to wait to turn away from it now; indeed, nothing interests me as much.

I owe my Amherst teachers a great deal, particularly those in the English Department: Ted Baird, Cesar L. Barber, Reuben Brower, G. Armour Craig, Walker Gibson. I don't think I had a favorite course, but having started as a Biochemistry major I switched to English in my junior year - not because the Biochem courses were inferior, they certainly weren't, but because the close reading of texts I could do in English seized my imagination (and was to serve me well, later, as a historian).

Amherst did the right thing in ending fraternities. Indeed, the damage that fraternities did lives after them. I resented the discrimination, destructive to the culture of sound educational institution that rushing and the other delights of the fraternity system imposed on entering students. I suspect I am not alone in that reaction. Amherst also did the right thing in becoming educational. A good school in a society that thinks itself modern should not exclude half the population. I valued New Curriculum for its breadth but I am not sufficiently well-informed to evaluate what has replaced it.

The biggest challenge facing our society today? Well, how about the unwillingness of most world leaders, both in politics and business, to think of the long term? A growing world population is increasingly stressing the ability of the globe's resources to support it.

I am grateful to Amherst for much, including the friends, many of them in the Jeff Club that I made there. I am pleased, however, that I have spent much of my life in the service of a major public university. It is not clear to me that society is getting the biggest bang for its buck by supporting private colleges.