Department of History

Robert Rea

Former Professor Dies of Cancer

By Erin Lewis, Staff Writer, the Auburn Plainsman
December 4, 1997

Former colleagues of Robert Right Rea remember him as a man of compassion, not only for the subject of history, but for the students he inspired as well.

Rea died Monday, Nov. 24 [1997], after battling cancer for many years. He retired from teaching at the University in 1992.

Rea came to Auburn in 1950 to teach history. Teaching both graduates and undergraduates, he “instilled terror” in his students, said Distinguished University Professor Wayne Flynt.

Flynt explained Rea was a no-nonsense, all-business kind of man. The man tolerated no excuses because he had clear expectations from the start, Flynt said.

Robin Fabel, professor of Southern history, remembers Rea as an “exceedingly demanding graduate adviser.” Having known Rea as both a teacher and later a colleague and friend, Fabel remembers Rea as a “mentally swift” man.

Outside of work the two played tennis. Saying he feels personalities are revealed during the game, Fabel remembers Rea as being quick in tennis with decisive strokes. “Having sized up any situation, he would act decisively,” he said.

Focusing on the British presence on the Gulf Coast in the late 18th Century, Rea wrote nine books, seven major essays, and 37 articles during his career.

Rea has been called a Renaissance man. In addition to his scholarly achievements, he played the violin with the Auburn Symphony Orchestra and the Montgomery Symphony. He was also an avid fencer who enjoyed chamber music, Flynt said.

Flynt said Rea loved teaching. “He loved being around students. That’s why he retired so late.”

Flynt recalls how Rea related to the students. For example, Rea taught one graduate student with a wife and three kids. The student was in a tight financial situation, forcing him to possibly withdraw from Auburn’s graduate program.

Rea stepped in to pay his tuition for a quarter to tide the student over.

While at Auburn, some of Rea’s achievements included Distinguished Graduate Faculty Lecturer, 1982-1983, and Faculty Achievement Award in the Humanities, 1985.

History Professor Daniel Szechi said Rea is also recognized on the international level. His book, The English Press in Politics, 1760-1773, is still quoted in all works in the British press.

Rea was also the founding member of both the Gulf Coast History & Humanities conference as well as the Alabama Association of Historians.

Last Updated: May 23, 2019