Jane Katherine Laurent
Professor of History
1947 – 2016
On Monday, April 18, 2016, the UNC Charlotte History Department lost one of its treasured colleagues, Dr. Jane Laurent. Jane, as we knew her, received her B.A. and M.A. at the University of Georgia, before heading to the Ivy League, where she received a Ph.D. in History from Brown University. She taught for three years, from 1976-1979, as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, after which she accepted a tenure-track position at UNC Charlotte where she taught until 2013.
Early in her career, Jane wrote several peer-reviewed articles on the experiences of Italian peasants during the medieval period. Her work appeared in the Journal of Medieval Studies, Archivo Storico Italiano, the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Peasant Studies. Her article “The Peasant in Italian Agrarian Treatises,” which appeared in Agricultural History, was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She also presented her work at the prestigious Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.
After this flurry of scholarly activity, Jane settled into the important work of teaching our students. In this, she excelled. Former colleagues who have since left UNC Charlotte, and those who remain, all speak of her talent for teaching and of the popularity of her courses, especially one she taught on the Black Death. Students recognized her passion for history, because it was visceral. “If you have a chance, take a class with Dr. Laurent,” one student wrote. “Her love of European History makes the class even more interesting.” Another student remarked, “Dr. Laurent was one of my favorite professors,” and added, “I loved her classes so much.”
Our colleague Dan Dupre captured her impact on students this way:
“My strongest visual memory of Jane over the last decade of her teaching was when I walked down the hallway and glanced into the conference room. There would be Jane, sitting beside a student. Together they'd be bent over the student's paper, going over the draft point by point. There is something about that image that captures the essence of her teaching--nothing flashy, few bells and whistles. Instead there's a kind of humility and compassion in that image of sitting side-by-side with the student and helping him or her improve.”
And from another colleague, Steve Sabol:
“Jane was generally quiet in department meetings or other situations within the department's daily environment, and I mistakenly thought that that Jane was the one I would experience during the classroom visit. It wasn't. She displayed an energy and passion that I did not expect. I watched a talented and skilled teacher at work. She engaged those students in truly impressive ways.”
Jane Laurent was also a wonderful colleague. Person after person remembers her generosity, kindness, and yes, her wit and humor, which she could use to defuse tension or make people laugh. Several colleagues recall that that “her door was always open to me.” She regularly made her home available for the socials the department holds for visiting job candidates. Jane also took a great interest in those candidates, demonstrating the breadth of her historical knowledge. Our former colleague, Heather Thompson, recalled, “I still so vividly remember when I first arrived for my on-campus visit at UNCC and she was there for my dinner the first evening. She asked so many questions about my work, and was so enthusiastic about it, that I thought she was one of the modern Americanists! I later found out that she was a Medievalist and that blew me away as a young historian--that she knew so much about my period of history when her work was so geographically and chronologically removed.”
Jane was also generous in other ways. In 2007, while I was in the hospital, my mother took the train from Greensboro to Charlotte to see me. Who should volunteer to greet her at the station and offer a ride? Jane Laurent.
Since health issues forced her into retirement—she loved teaching too much to go willingly—colleagues and students have missed Jane. Linda Smith, our office manager, notes that Jane’s former students “Come to the office all the time and ask about her.”
Jane Laurent was a quiet presence in the department, but her contributions as a teacher, mentor, and as the advisor to Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society, did not go unnoticed. A couple of years ago the seeds of the 49er Historians Scholarship fund began in honor of Jane and her dedication to teaching. This year, the first of the Jane Laurent scholarships will be awarded to the undergraduate student with the best paper from the department’s History 2600 skills course, the course for which she is best known.
Allow me to conclude this memoriam with one last memory of Jane, offered by her longtime colleague Donna Gabaccia, formerly the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History. It captures a moment and the genuine person that Jane Laurent was.
“Although I benefited from Jane Laurent’s generosity from the moment I arrived as a house-hunting new member of the UNCC History Department in 1992, the memory that returned powerfully to me when I learned of her death was a begin-of-semester party at my house in Dilworth around 1996.
My Dad was visiting me at the time; his emphysema was severe enough that he succeeded in reaching the second floor only by sitting, toddler-style, on each step in turn, always pausing as he shifted from lower to higher level. He would die a year later from lung cancer.
I remember Jane and my Dad sitting together in animated conversation in my tiny breakfast nook while colleagues and children streamed through the house. It’s a striking mental picture of the two of them: Dad with his working man’s hands and the social skills of the plumber that he proudly was, and Jane, with a rough voice and wry humor, someone who accepted family members as they were without caring how they might fit at a faculty party. Donna’s father? How interesting. Or so I imagine Jane’s thoughts.
Were they smoking together? Probably. My Dad refused to give up a cherished pleasure, even in his final days. Were they talking about Florida, where my father then lived and where she grew up? Or maybe they were talking about kids and grandkids. Or even Italy, a place both knew, despite having gained their familiarity in very different ways.
This memory speaks to me now of Jane’s generosity of spirit. She was generous in a way that totally ignored the endless status competitions through which even very nice academic colleagues tend to isolate themselves from working people. I’m not immune to those status competitions. But Jane was. And I liked that about her more than anything else.
I hope that she and my Dad can now pick up on that conversation where they left it on that long-ago day in Charlotte.”
So do I. Rest in Peace, Jane.
Karen L. Cox
Professor of History