Late UMass prof’s $450K gift benefits Amherst, Leverett libraries

  • John Phelan/via Wikimedia John Phelan/via Wikimedia

Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2019 12:05:29 AM

AMHERST — About 30 years after retiring as a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, and two years after his death, a longtime Leverett resident has left more than $450,000 to improve the libraries in Amherst and Leverett and to enhance the natural world in his hometown.

In Amherst, the $273,000 bequest from John van Steenberg is going toward the eventual renovation and expansion of the main branch building at 43 Amity St., based on a decision elected trustees recently made related to the unrestricted gift.

In Leverett, van Steenberg’s estate provided the town library with $91,124, along with an equal amount to the Conservation Commission that must be used “to preserve the natural beauty of the town.”

Lisa Werner, chairwoman of the Leverett library trustees, said the board is grateful for the gift and will have to make decisions on how the money is used.

“We are currently in the process of developing our next five-year plan for the library and the results of this process will help to inform how we will use this generous gift,” Werner said.

Already, the Leverett Conservation Commission has had brief discussions on using the money, possibly for constructing a habitat for barn swallows or a boardwalk for the Doolittle Brook beaver swamp or Leverett Pond, or using the gift as a match for purchasing conservation land.

Though van Steenberg lived in Leverett for 55 years until his death at 93 in 2017, and for more than 30 years taught modern European history at UMass, specializing in diplomatic history and Scandinavian history, there remains some mystery surrounding his gifts.

The university, in fact, has little information about his tenure, with the special collections and university archives not holding any of his papers. The only content of his held there is an early curriculum vitae from the late 1970s, which outlines some of his experience up until that time.

That resume shows that he began as an instructor at UMass in 1958 and became an assistant professor a year later. Before that, between 1947 and 1953, he worked for the U.S. government, mostly at the American embassy in Stockolm, Sweden.

Still, there are colleagues and students who remember van Steenberg.

Joyce Berkman, a professor emerita, was among van Steenberg’s contemporaries. Berkman wrote in an email that the bequests to the libraries make sense to her because van Steenberg was so widely read.

“He was a thoroughgoing intellectual, who loved to read, think, talk,” Berkman said, adding that she recalls that one of her late neighbors enjoyed heading to van Steenberg’s home and would put up with his ornery ways because of his breadth of knowledge.

The only information Jones Library officials received about van Steenberg came from an obituary written for the 2018 Report from the Department of History at UMass by Roger Atwood, a 1984 graduate and now a Washington, D.C-based writer. In that appreciation, Atwood remembers van Steenberg’s teaching style:

“John was popular among students for his lively lectures, eclectic reading assignments, and interesting classroom props. Outside the university’s halls, he was a warm, funny, cultured man who wore his erudition lightly yet always impressed people with his vast learning and salty sense of humor.”

Van Steenberg made his home on Shutesbury Road in Leverett from 1962 until the 2017 heart attack that claimed his life. He left no immediate relatives, though had a longtime companion and caretaker, Eric Masters, who received a portion of the estate. In addition to the Amherst and Leverett libraries, the library in Oneonta, New York, where he attended high school, received a bequest.

Atwood wrote that he penned letters to his former professor over the years and even visited on occasion.

“He would tell me about life in the town of Leverett, which he loved dearly, and his many friendships and trips to cultural venues all over New England,” he wrote. Atwood described the van Steenberg residence as a “rambling colonial house … with its creaking floorboards and chiming clocks, every room filled with paintings, posters, and artifacts gathered over a lifetime of world travel.”

According to Atwood, van Steenberg’s academic career may never have begun if he hadn’t been forced out of his work at the embassy, where he was an employee of the CIA for a time.

“In 1953, John was one of several thousand federal employees interrogated about their sexuality in the McCarthyite purge of homosexuals prompted by the so-called ‘lavender scare,’” Atwood wrote. “Hooked up to a polygraph but determined to keep his job, John denied that he was a homosexual. He flunked the test and was fired.”

But though van Steenberg spoke to Atwood about this, he never wrote about his experience.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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