Deceased February 16, 2023
Tom Blackburn passed away on Feb. 16 after a brief illness. In the words of a Swarthmore College colleague, he was “a big man who took delight in the play of the body as well as the reaches of the mind.”
Tom was born in Teaneck, N.J., and graduated from Teaneck High School. The first of his family to attend college, Tom joined Psi U and lettered in football, wrestling and track; on the gridiron, he was a tackle for the undefeated Jeffs of 1953. He majored in English, graduating magna cum laude, and was elected a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford, he found the charms of Europe to be to his taste, in particular an English rose named Ann, who became his beloved wife of 57 years. After earning a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford, he wrote his dissertation at Stanford on the English poet and historian Edmund Bolton, which remains a reference work on its subject to this day.
After finishing at Stanford in 1961, Tom joined the faculty of Swarthmore, teaching there until his retirement in 2000. That tenure included his appointment as dean of students from 1976 to 1981, during which he aggressively sought to improve Black student enrollment and faculty appointments and bring equity to the men’s and women’s athletic programs. Invoking Milton’s dictum that “to write badly is a sin against the gift of reason itself,” Tom also founded the Swarthmore Writing Associates program, which became a model for, among others, Amherst’s own Writing Center.
“Strangers once, we came to dwell together,” the motto of the mighty ’54s, rang especially true for Tom, who cherished his Amherst friendships to his very last day. He was predeceased by Ann in 2020; he is survived by his sons, Adam ’91 and Benton, and three grandchildren.
Adam Blackburn ’91