He Never Said No

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007

Charles H. Watts, former dean of the college at Brown and president of Bucknell University, died of a heart attack on September 27 at his farm in Freedom, New Hampshire. He was 74.

Watts's rapid rise through the academic ranks - from English instructor just two years after graduating from Brown to president of Bucknell at the age of 37 - could only be described as unusual. That's the word President Barnaby C. Keeney used to describe Watts when appointing him Brown's dean of the College in 1958. "His teaching is inspiring and his research productive," Keeney said of Watts. "He is imaginative in education and decisive in decision."

Watts received his Ph.D. in American literature from Brown in 1953 and served as an associate professor of English, but Patricia McQuillen Watts says her husband "never considered himself much of a scholar." He was a good teacher, she says, who always pushed students toward active inquiry. "What I want is an angry man," the Brown Daily Herald quoted Watts as saying in 1957. "He comes to college to learn, to ask questions, nasty questions, that probe for premises. Chiefly what he is doing is forming his own image of what he wants himself and the world to be."

When political unrest swept across college campuses in the Vietnam era, many college presidents called in the police. Watts, who led Bucknell from 1963 to 1975, encouraged students to explore their views and organized forums between students and faculty, Patricia Watts says. Instead of discouraging student demonstrations, Watts says her husband rented buses to safely transport protesters to and from rallies.

After leaving Bucknell, Watts returned to Brown to lead a major capital campaign. He served for years on the board of the John Carter Brown Library.

A lifelong conservationist, Watts was active with a number of environmental groups and served on the board of the Society for Preservation of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF). In the mid-1990s, Watts donated a thousand acres of woodland near Green Mountain to the SPNHF to create the High Watch Preserve, the group's 100th nature reserve. SPNHF president Jane Difley says Watts was a visionary who always challenged the organization to "push deeper" and consider issues such as how acquiring a piece of land would fit with other nature reserves and how preserving a certain parcel would protect the water supply and affect local residents.

In 1955 Watts and his wife bought the High Meadows Farm in Freedom. They operated the farm commercially for forty years, selling eggs, apples, and hay. Watts was working to prepare the farm for winter when he died.

"What Charlie loved most was being useful to his family or his friends or to the world," Patricia Watts says. "I used to joke with him that he didn't know a simple English word: no. When anyone asked for his help, he didn't know how to refuse."

A U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, Watts is survived by his wife; two daughters, Katherine L. Watts and Caroline W. Collins; a son, Charles III '86, '91 M.F.A.; and six grandchildren.

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January / February 2002