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The Daily Tar Heel

American historian celebrates 101 years of learning

Retired UNC History professor William “Bill” Leuchtenburg celebrated his 101st birthday on Sept. 28, 2023. Leuchtenburg is pictured in his study with his dog, Murphy, on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023.

There is no space left on the walls of William "Bill" Leuchtenburg's study.

There are prestigious awards scattered around the room. Frames filled with photographs of him with presidents and U.S. Supreme Court justices. Bookshelves overflowing with stories he wrote and edited.

And while he has many accomplishments already, he added a new one this past week.

He turned 101 years old.

Bill celebrated his birthday last Thursday surrounded by friends, his wife Jean Anne Leuchtenburg and the couple's Australian labradoodle Murphy, whom they call their "firstborn." 

He said his birthday celebrations were wonderful, with gifts including a new plaid jacket from his favorite store in Charleston, S.C., and a short song written and performed by his friends.

Along with being an avid Boston Red Sox fan and bird watcher, Bill has spent his life studying Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal and U.S. history.

His interest in U.S. politics began in 1932 when he had just turned 10 years old and his parents let him stay up past his bedtime to listen to the Democratic National Convention on the radio. 

Bill was a professor in UNC’s history department from 1982 through 2002, where he specialized in 20th century history. In 2021, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University — a degree given to those who significantly contribute to society and beyond.

“Despite the degree, I’m never going to be Tar Heel born or Tar Heel bred, but I will now be a Tar Heel alumnus from this great University,” Bill said.

Before coming to UNC, he taught at numerous other institutions — including Harvard University, Columbia University and Oxford University. He has traveled around the world and to all 50 states, where he has visited national parks, published dozens of books and befriended historic figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Among his long list of acquaintances and students is famous documentary creator Ken Burns.

Bill has been Burns’ historical consultant for more than 40 years and is currently helping him with three upcoming U.S. history films, he said. 

While his wealth of knowledge about U.S. history has been enhanced by reading and learning, it also comes from living through it himself. For one of Burns’ documentaries on racial equality, Bill recalled his personal experience from participating in the Montgomery march for voting rights with Martin Luther King Jr.

But, despite the long list of published papers and hands shaken, he said his marriage is his greatest accomplishment. 

Jean Anne, who has a background in English and literature, said they work as a team in all aspects of life, but especially in their work. She added that she often helps Bill transfer his work onto their computer and edits his papers and books with him.

Every day starts with a laugh and love from their dog Murphy, she said. They talk about everything, and their conversations are "intellectually exciting."

“Living with someone like Bill, who has so much knowledge on history and has seen so many things really makes my life interesting,” she said. “I get to learn so much every day and it really puts life into perspective.” 

Hugh Stevens, a UNC alumnus, said he met Bill several years ago and befriended him when they became a part of the same lunch group. 

As a baseball fan himself, Stevens once asked Bill if he had ever seen Babe Ruth play in person. Not only did Bill remember watching Ruth play in a 1928 game at Yankee Stadium as a six-year-old, he remembered every starting players' name and position.

“That's just an example of how his mind is just amazing,” Stevens said. “And he's like that about New Deal legislation, what presidents did or didn't do, or you name it. I mean he really is an inspiration to anybody to not let your mind be idle.”

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In all the historic events and societal shifts Bill has lived through, he said he always tries to remain joyful. Bill even has a collection of songs and “ditties” that he is ready to sing at all times with a smile on his face, Stevens said.

“I wish everyone could be so lucky to call Bill Leuchtenburg a friend,” he said.

Bill said being cheerful is the key to his success in the past century, and that he tries to find a way to be happy each day.

"Jean Anne was singing to me at lunch today, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,’" he said. "And I sure have a lot to clap about."


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