Sad news: Robert (Bob) Preyer

Nov. 19, 2019

Dear Colleagues,

I am sad to report that Robert (Bob) O. Preyer, Emeritus Professor of English and American literature, passed away on November 15, 2019 at the age of 97.  He leaves behind his wife Mandy, daughters Jill Preyer, Sally Preyer LaVenture, and Liz Preyer, son-in-law Morris Letsinger, four granddaughters, and seven great-grandchildren.

Bob was raised in Greensboro, N.C., attended Choate Preparatory School, graduated from Princeton University (where his studies were interrupted by service in the Navy from 1943-45), received his PhD from Columbia (where his dissertation was directed by Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun), and taught at Smith, Amherst and Princeton before becoming an assistant professor of English at Brandeis in 1954.  He received tenure in 1960, was promoted to full professor in 1964, and retired in 1987. A scholar of Victorian literature and poetry he taught and lectured widely and his scholarship was published in many prestigious journals.

Brandeis University’ first president, Abram Sachar, talks about Bob Preyer in his book A Host at Last as a member of a diversified group of humanities scholars “mining away on the treasures hidden in the works of the Victorians.” Sachar goes on to share parts of a letter Preyer wrote when he was serving as department chair for English and American Literature in which he outlines his alternative approach to education at Brandeis.  In Preyer’s words, “We might not agree on morals, politics, the meaning of text, but we did agree that our ideal aim was to put students in complete possession of all their powers.  As practical classroom teachers we wanted them to have access to the production of first-rate minds, to enable them to experience what that meant…Our negative purpose was to insure that they recognized and developed a proper disesteem for the meretricious and the third rate…Above all we feared the inculcation of 'inert ideas', that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.” As provost I have to say that I find the goals and aspirations of these words as insiring and true today as they were almost 60 years ago.

Bob was an early and passionate advocate for the Transitional Year Program and the Posse program at Brandeis. He also established the Preyer Scholarship Endowment. In addition to his academic pursuits, Bob was a lifelong philanthropist, a believer in social, racial and economic justice. He was on the boards of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, the Posse Foundation, and Eyes on the Prize. As detailed in his obituary in the Boston Globe, “One of his favorite lines from William Wordsworth was, ‘The best portion of a good man's life: his little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.’”

When he retired from Brandeis University, Bob anonymously established the most delightful “Wellington Prize”. This monetary prize is awarded annually by lottery to an assistant professor at Brandeis and is "intended to delight the senses and enliven the spirit of young men and women who will do their research in any event but not with this bequest!” In other words, the goal is to help a lucky junior faculty member take some time away from their research and use the funds creatively to play.  An additional requirement is that the winner describes their exploits at the first faculty meeting of the year.  While you all now know who the benefactor of this gift is, we will continue to call this an anonymous gift in keeping with Bob's playful spirit.

Bob Preyer was deeply committed to the mission and values of Brandeis and he will be sorely missed.


Lisa M. Lynch