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David S. Lavender, 93; Prolific Western Historian

April 27, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

David S. Lavender, a prolific Western historian who rode the range and mined for gold before crafting more than 40 meticulously researched volumes, died Saturday. He was 93.

In failing health for several months, Lavender died at his home in Ojai of natural causes.

Praised by Times book reviewer Jonathan Kirsch for writing history "with the rhythm and gritty detail of a yarn told around a campfire," Lavender delved into a wide variety of Western themes. His books spanned the region, touching down in locales as diverse as the wilderness camps of the early fur trappers and the boardrooms of the railroad barons.

Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, he received many significant awards for his work. In 1997 he was honored by the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, which gave him its Wallace Stegner Award.

"If one person can be said to serve as keeper of a region's heritage, David Lavender is clearly the West's own memory," a spokesman for the center said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Lavender obituary -- In the obituary of Western historian David S. Lavender in Sunday's California section, the name of his second wife was incorrect. She was Mildred Moreland, not Martha Moreland.

While well-known among history buffs and scholars of the West, Lavender never achieved the acclaim of the handful of historians whose books are fixtures on the bestseller lists. He surfaced in the news last year as one of the authors whom the late Stephen Ambrose was accused of plagiarizing.

In an interview with The Times, Lavender expressed consternation over Ambrose's lifting of passages from "The Great Persuader," his 1970 biography of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington.

"They're relatively short, harmless passages but that's not the point," Lavender said. "Once you put your hands on it, it becomes a part of you. Even changing a 'this' to a 'that' becomes a sin."

A man who never lost his taste for fishing streams and lonely spaces, Lavender grew up on a ranch 20 miles outside Telluride, Colo. His grandfather was chief justice of Colorado and his stepfather ranched and ran a stagecoach line.

But even with his roots sunk deeply in the West, Lavender headed east for his education, attending Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania and graduating from Princeton in 1931.

At Princeton, he developed his flair for writing and his reverence for history. In the years afterward he returned to Colorado, working the family ranch and then signing on at a gold mine for $5 a day.

He chronicled his experiences in his first book, a 1943 collection of essays called "One Man's West," which opens with a distinctly cowpoke complaint: "Came a day when I wanted to get married and needed a stake."

The year that book was published Lavender landed a job teaching English at the Thacher School, a boarding school in Ojai.

Rick Lyttle, a former student, recalled the deep impression Lavender cut around the prep school, especially during camping trips where he could demonstrate his outdoor skills.

"We were all looking for heroes to worship and he was one of them," Lyttle said. "We had all read 'One Man's West' and we were impressed. He was a cowboy and he was a miner. He was everything."

Lavender taught at Thacher full time until 1970 and part time for years afterward. Grateful alumni corresponded with him frequently and visited his home near the campus.

Traveling extensively to research his histories, Lavender planted himself in museums and libraries. He also rode horses and rafted rivers as he pursued fading pieces of the West.

"Why not?" he once joked to an interviewer. "Is it my fault if the fish bite there?"

His work took him on an intellectual journey through the region as well. "The Big Divide" is a history of the Rockies and "Let Me Be Free" examines the tragic saga of the Nez Perce Indians.

In "The Way to the Western Sea," Lavender explored the West with Lewis and Clark, and in "Nothing Seemed Impossible," he poured himself into early San Francisco and the machinations of banker William C. Ralston.

Whatever he tackled, he stubbornly resisted the romanticism of other Western writers.

For instance, he was ceaselessly amazed by the popular worship of cowboys. "Although they were slaves to a particularly stupid and unattractive animal, they became symbols of the West's vaunted freedom," he wrote.

Martin Ridge, a Western historian and former editor of the Journal of American History, said Lavender's story-telling secret lay in his unflinching eye for detail.

"He can write on a grand scale yet do intensive, in-depth research," Ridge said in an interview last year. "That's what makes his work come alive. If you know him personally, you realize you're dealing with a person who takes his work -- but not himself -- very seriously."

Lavender, who was planning a book on forest fires before he died, was wry in personal encounters. Asked by a visitor why he chose to write about the West instead of, say, Philadelphia, he responded with a smile: "Frankly, I've never been attracted to Philadelphia."

Lavender's first wife, Martha, died in 1959. He was married to Martha Moreland for 25 years before she too died. On his 80th birthday he married Muriel Sharkey, whom he got to know on a river trip through the Grand Canyon.

She survives him, as do his son, David G. Lavender, and numerous grandchildren, stepchildren and great-grandchildren.

A memorial service has been scheduled for June 12 at the Thacher School in Ojai.

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