Illustration of figure standing by a tree, looking at a sunset-tinged sky
Illustration: Maria Medem

William Cronon hadn’t expected his retirement from UW-Madison to be affected by COVID-19. In fact, Cronon, the former Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies, hadn’t really been thinking about how to mark his retirement at all until the pandemic suddenly intervened and seemed to render his departure almost invisible.

Last spring, on April 30, Cronon returned to the UW-Madison campus for the first time in more than two years to participate in “Common Places: Keywords for a More Than Human World,” a daylong conference organized by his former PhD students that doubled as a belated retirement fête for the legendary emeritus professor, who officially retired at the end of 2020 after nearly three decades here. It was an overdue opportunity for the faculty, staff and students whose lives he touched to reconnect with a beloved friend.

“You can read the title of the conference geographically as ‘common places’ or you can read it linguistically as ‘commonplace’—both point at things we take for granted in this world,” says Cronon. “The question I’ve asked throughout my career is, how do I help people stop taking the world for granted?”

“A keyword that drives me personally,” Cronon says, “is ‘the common good.’ That phrase has immense power for me.” To Cronon, land and landscape have always been embodiments of “the commons,” which is a big part of why he’s devoted his career to writing about them.

During his time at UW-Madison, Cronon became one of the university’s most thoughtful and respected voices. His lectures on American Environmental History routinely attracted hundreds of students and auditors.

He now lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, having married his second wife and moved there because she’s a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Manitoba. There, he continues to work on two big research projects: the first, a sweeping macrohistory on “The Making of the American Landscape,” and the second, an equally sprawling microhistory of Portage, Wisconsin.

“The two books complement each other. Both tell stories of the making of America, one on the scale of the continent, the other on the scale of a small town in Wisconsin,” Cronon explains. “But they’re ultimately the same stories.”

Cronon’s legacy at UW-Madison extends far beyond his writing and teaching. He helped found the L&S Writing Fellows program, the Undergraduate Research Scholars program and Chadbourne Residential College. He oversaw the first master plan of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. He led the process of creating the university’s first Environmental Studies major, and participated in creating the Center for Culture, History, and the Environment (CHE).

Most of all, though, Cronon is proud of the many students he mentored. More than 50 of them made the long trip to Madison from all over the country to participate in last spring’s celebration—abiding proof of his ongoing impact as a teacher.

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