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Remembering Professor Emeritus Paul Wilt

Paul Wilt, Westmont professor emeritus of history, died June 23 at the age of 93. He is survived by his wife, Doris, and their four children: Tom, Marilyn ’74, Janet ’76 and Daniel ’84. A memorial service will be held at Shoreline Community Church, 935 San Andres Street, Santa Barbara, on Saturday, July 16, at 10 a.m. He has requested donations to Westmont instead of flowers.

Paul taught mostly U.S. and Latin American history at Westmont for 36 years (1958-1994), won the Teacher of the Year Award twice (1971 and 1983), and served twice as interim dean of the faculty. He held many positions at the college, including divisional coordinator, vice chair of the faculty, chair of the history department, and chair and member of numerous committees. A big supporter of Westmont’s Europe Semester, he led the program numerous times.  

Professor Paul Wilt in 1962
Professor Paul Wilt in 1962

Paul’s father owned a grocery store in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. Paul studied at Lancaster School of the Bible and Theology and married Doris Rhine after graduating in 1950. He taught at his alma mater while earning a degree in history from Franklin and Marshall College in 1955. Paul served as a pastor at Calvary Bible Church in Hanover, Pennsylvania, but continued his studies, receiving a master’s degree in history from the University of Delaware in 1958. By that time, he’d already started a doctoral program in history at American University, which he completed in 1970.

Westmont hired Paul in 1958, and he and Doris moved their three children to Santa Barbara.

When the college established the Phi Kappa Phi Paul C. Wilt Lectures to honor him, Robert Gundry, a longtime professor of New Testament and Greek and scholar in residence, paid tribute to Paul. “He contributed heavily and self-sacrificially to the college, especially for the acquisition of books by its library. He was a representative of Christian service here and in the wider community, of Christian service at its most admirable, at its most exemplary.” Gundry noted that Paul’s commitment to Christian education extended to his role in founding four Christian day schools, three in Pennsylvania and one in Santa Barbara.

On the same occasion, the late philosophy professor Robert Wennberg also praised Paul. “He was, of course, a deeply committed Christian, devoted to the life of learning, and devoted to his students. Paul Wilt believed that Westmont was to be a place where the Christian faith was to inform our learning and our learning was to inform our Christian faith. He embodied this wholeness in his own person and sought to help his students achieve this in their own lives. With all his heart, he believed in the value of history as a professional enterprise; he believed in its value for his students, and he wanted his department to flourish — but never, never at the expense of the college as a whole.”

Paul met and interviewed many of the people involved in founding Westmont and leading the college during its first few decades, including numerous alumni. His extensive oral histories provide valuable information about Westmont’s early years, and he wrote accounts of the founding of each building on campus as well as key faculty and administrators. After he retired from teaching, he spent 10 years organizing the information deposited haphazardly in the archives, laying the groundwork for a professional archive. He continued to volunteer in the archives for years until his health began declining.

A beloved professor and engaging teacher, Paul leaves a legacy of generations of students with a keen appreciation for and understanding of history — and much sharper writing skills. He contributed significantly to the preservation of Westmont’s history and heritage, and any account of the college’s early days bears his mark.