Robert Francis Engs: What a Legacy!

Spend Matters in its current iteration (2.0, 3.0?) is the result of several great minds, contributors, and editors in the world of procurement. But it came to be in 2004 because of one person (me) who loved to cast a critical eye upon several topics, light and heavy alike. The real genesis of the prolific, reasoned, and nuanced style goes back almost two decades, when I learned to apply the lessons of a dear mentor and friend who had a huge impact on my life, Dr. Robert Francis Engs.

Bob was my undergraduate honors and graduate History advisor at the University of Pennsylvania. I was not only his student, but also his copy editor, which led to many long night and weekend meetings that began with work discussions and quickly digressed into other topics. Bob was all but impossible to typecast. He definitely didn’t follow the “politically correct” movement at the time. Though a Democrat – and I believe one of the first African-American tenured faculty members in an Ivy League history department – he always reminded me that the Republican party was the party of emancipation. Within the ivory towers of academia, his views became less radical than many of his colleagues in Penn’s history department, despite the off-handed slights and discrimination I know he faced earlier in his career as he broke through the highest levels of the academic race barrier.

Bob entered the world of Penn's history department during a time when banter and debate was still done over pipes, cigarettes and scotch -- at anytime of the day. Yet by the time I met Bob, he had already given up drinking and smoking because of some mid-life health scares. But he still let me puff a cigar on his porch as we argued topics ranging from Lincoln’s true motivations at the start of the Civil War, to modern day civil rights, to how Penn (at the time) had an affirmative action program that was causing as much friction as benefit. One of these conversations led to Bob talking me out of pursuing academia as a career option, and for good reason (more on that later).

In my short time as a graduate student, my mentor bestowed a lasting legacy that would impact my entire career outside of the academy. He taught me not only how to think, but how to write and edit quickly (e.g., turning a chapter of a masters thesis overnight). He also gave me an appreciation for digging into true source material, such as Civil War letters, not just looking at what they had to say, but the context in which they were written. Were they rushed and short? Were they measured and reflective? During a battle or campaign, how did one soldier’s view reflect on the broader success (or failure) of what was really going on?

Bob reminded me of the power of context and motivation behind the letters. What was the author’s connection to his parents? To brothers fighting in a different campaign? To friends – old and new? To an idea, or a cause? Yet Bob approached these very serious topics with a down-to-earth sense of humanity and basic humor that always added  levity to even the most academic topics. These lessons (including lightening up analysis when required) served me well as I learned to research and write in academic and non-academic settings alike.

Despite the sober nature of his research on the Civil War and African American education during reconstruction, Bob always maintained a sense of humor. He always picked up a copy of the now defunct “Red and the Blue” – Penn’s former libertarian/conservative paper – that I helped edit just to see the how far we could push the limits without losing our funding (which happened from time to time anyway). He’d nitpick my articles (e.g., a photo-journalism essay comparing the local high-rise housing projects to on-compass high-rise housing, that also included a guide on how to qualify for public housing as a student and all the money you could save) with a chuckle and ever the kind eye for making the arguments -- even those he disagreed with -- even more persuasive.

Bob usually spared me reductio ad absurdum criticisms in favor of a softer, mentoring hand. But when I deserved it around my research, he would let loose on how something was poorly reasoned and how my conclusions could not possibly be the work of someone who had fully thought through what he was actually trying to address. In short, he knew how to tear me apart, in private, when required (but never in broader company).

And Bob was honest with me in terms of my academic prospects. I remember a conversation we had almost word-for-word, when he said my academic future was not bright owing to views that did not fall in-line with the far left orthodoxy (which he did not agree with either) sweeping many history departments. The one time he raised his voice at me when it came to career advice: “What are you going to do, Jason? Hide your politics? Why don’t you graduate, head into consulting to learn business, start a firm and endow a chair in my name someday? That way you can have some control over the type of history that is taught at places like this and keep my good name alive.” I told him it was a deal.

When I left Penn with a BA/MA in history, I came away with knowing how to conduct research and write up the results and analysis (and edit) as fast as anyone – and critique and improve things as I went, learning on the fly. Bob not only helped me get my 10,000 hours of learning/practice in research and writing – he inspired me to spend my career doing what I really enjoyed, an equation that includes equal parts research, style, creativity, and fun.

Bob died earlier this year at the young age of 69. I only learned of his passing when I went to write him a summer note updating him on my whereabouts this week (which marks the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, an anniversary I know Bob would have remembered). I planned to tell him that I was not yet ready to endow the Chair but just to give me a few more years, and that in the meantime, I’d be happy to send him a case of O’Douls to sit outside and enjoy this summer (the only beer he could enjoy after he started minding his health more closely).

In the end, Bob was a master at demanding excellence, in a soft-spoken manner, that extracted the best from those around him. Without Bob’s mentoring and encouragement, Spend Matters would not be here today.

Thanks Bob for everything, especially your thoughtful guidance and friendship. And long before the Dodransbicentennial of Gettysburg, do plan to look down at that endowed Chair that I'm planning for you.

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First Voice

  1. Pierre:

    Chapeau! Very nice tribute Jason. You definitely took Bob’s advice to heart! I’m sure he was aware and proud of the fine man you’ve turned out to be.

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