A photograph from the Gilbert C. Fite Papers which shows Mary Jane McCardle Fite (Gilbert’s mother) on the left and an unidentified woman on the right. Below is a photograph of Clyde Fite (center, father), Frank (left, brother) and Gilbert (right) from 1923 or 1924.
Gilbert Courtland Fite was born on May 14, 1918 in Sante Fe, Ohio. Shortly after his birth, he and his parents settled in South Dakota. He first attended Wessington Springs Junior College, where he discovered his love of history. Fite then went on to attend Seattle Pacific College. He soon fell ill and was forced to return to South Dakota, where he was cared for by a nurse named Alberta June Goodwin, who he would later marry on July 24, 1941 and have two sons, Jack and James. After overcoming illness, Fite returned to school at the University of South Dakota where he received both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in History in 1941. He continued with his Ph.D. studies at the University of Missouri, where he completed his dissertation on South Dakotan Governor and Senator Peter Norbeck.
After graduation, Fite spent 25 years as a history professor at the University of Oklahoma starting in 1945. He was named chair of this department from 1955-1958. From 1968 to 1971, he received the title of George Lynn Cross Research Professor, named after the former University of Oklahoma president. Throughout his time at Oklahoma, Fite made two year-long journeys to India. The first, from 1962 to 1963, was as a professor at Jadavapur University in Calcutta and the second, from 1969 to 1970, as the Director of the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad. He published numerous works while at Oklahoma, including multiple American history textbooks, works on the prairie and South Dakota, two economic history texts, as well as several books and articles detailing agricultural changes throughout the United States and abroad.
After returning from India, Gilbert Fite left Oklahoma to take a position as the President of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. During this time, he was able to successfully handle a budget crisis and welcomed a visit from then Vice-President Gerald Ford. He left the university in 1976 to return to teaching and research.
In 1977, Fite was named the Richard B. Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia, a prestigious research professor position named after a former Georgian politician. He returned to doing research and compiling multiple books and articles, including Richard B. Russell, Senator from Georgia, which was completed after his retirement and won a Phi Alpha Theta Award for Best Book and American Farmers: the New Minority, among many others. He also served as acting Department Head from 1977 to 1978. Fite was named Emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia in 1986 and retired that same year.
Fite and his wife, June, retired to Bella Vista, Arkansas, where they became very politically active in their community and Gilbert took up playing golf extensively. He periodically continued to write, with his last book about the history of Bella Vista published in 1993. In failing health, Fite moved to Fort Meyers, Florida in 2005. He died July 13, 2010.
Fite was a member of the Society of American Historians, the Agricultural History Society (President 1960), the Southern Historical Association (President 1974), the Western History Association (President 1985), and Phi Alpha Theta, history’s international honorary society (President 1981-1983). Fite served on the editorial boards of nine historical periodicals: Montana, The Magazine of Western History, Great Plains Quarterly, South Dakota History, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Agricultural History, Red River Valley Historical Review, The Midwest Quarterly, and the periodicals of the above mentioned historical societies. In addition, he served as a consultant for numerous Universities, the Screening Committee Fulbright Awards, the National Park Service and the United States Office of Education. Fite also served as a member of the Board of Trustees, Phillips University, Enid, Oklahoma, 1969-76, and a member of the Board of Trustees, Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, Kentucky, 1972-76.Fite received numerous honors and awards, including a Ford Fellowship, 1954-55, two Fulbright Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1964, and the Theodore Salautos Award for the Best Book in Agricultural History, 1985. In 1990 Fite was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. — Stephanie Andell and Diane Frigge