Steven Watts, MU history professor, wins Thomas Jefferson Award

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 10:41 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Steven Watts, an MU professor of history, talks to colleagues after receiving the Thomas Jefferson Award on Wednesday. Given by the University of Missouri System, the Jefferson Award recognizes exceptional faculty members who have been associated with the system for at least 10 years.

COLUMBIA — MU history professor Steven Watts has written biographies on Walt Disney, Henry Ford and Hugh Hefner, and he has shared his expertise on several television shows. 

On Wednesday morning, Watts was recognized for his service at MU, where he has spent 42 of his past 43 years.

The annual Thomas Jefferson Award recognizes an exceptional University of Missouri System faculty member who has worked at one of the four campuses for at least 10 years, according to the system's website. Watts will receive $10,000 and a plaque at the UM System Board of Curators dinner on June 13.

"Like Jefferson, Professor Watts has had an abiding interest in and lifelong commitment to public higher education, as his own educational background and professional career attest," History Department Chairman Russ Zguta wrote in his letter to the award's selection committee.

Watts said he has spent 42 of the past 43 years at MU. As a freshman in 1971, he took his first history course in Western civilization with Zguta.

"I have seen Professor Watts grow and mature, from being a fine undergraduate student to being an outstanding scholar and teacher," Zguta wrote in his letter.

Watts received his bachelor's degree from MU in 1975 and his master's degree from the University of Virginia in 1978. He then returned to MU for a doctoral degree, which he earned in 1984. He joined MU's faculty that year.

Since joining the faculty, Watts has taught an American history survey course each year, Zguta said. Watts said he also teaches upper-level American cultural history courses.

"I've always thought a historical perspective is a way to understand how the world works," Watts said.

In January, he talked about Henry Ford on an episode of the PBS television series "American Experience." He appeared on the History Channel twice in 2012. He talked about Hefner in the documentary "How Playboy Changed the World," which aired in October and about Ford in a November episode of the television series "The Men Who Built America."

Watts' work has been recognized internationally, Zguta said in his letter. He presented papers at the University of Paris in 1992 and at an international conference sponsored by the University of London in July 2012. In December, he talked about Hefner on national Irish radio in Dublin.

Watts received the Provost's Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching Award in 1988 and the William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence in 1995.

A former chairman of the committee that chooses the winner of the Thomas Jefferson award, Watts said he knows how many qualified people were nominated and that he was shocked and honored to receive the award.

"It's a highlight of my career," Watts said.

After receiving the award on Wednesday morning, he joked that the department has been trying to find a way to get rid of him, and the award wouldn't help.

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.

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