Remembering William Cullen Dennis II
Friend, Mentor, and Colleague*
William Cullen Dennis II
It is with the deepest sadness that I have learned of the sudden passing of William Cullen Dennis II (1941-2023), one of Liberty Fund’s longtime employees who helped shape the form and substance of the foundation’s mission in its middle years. Bill came from an old and prominent Indiana Quaker family in the town of Richmond. His great-grandfather was a professor of biology at Earlham College, while his namesake, and grandfather, William Cullen Dennis I, was college president from 1929-1946. His father was David Worth Dennis who served in the US Congress from January 3, 1969, to January 3, 1975. Like his forebears, Bill carried on his family’s tradition of intellectual and civic engagement.
There was a time when Bill represented the face of Liberty Fund to the wider public, but he had a long and distinguished career well before that time in both higher education and public service. Having studied with the eminent historian, Edmund Morgan at Yale University, Bill completed his dissertation, A Federalist Persuasion: The American Ideal of the Connecticut Federalists in 1971 and was soon given tenure and later a full professorship at Denison University in Ohio, where he had already been teaching American history since 1968. He held that position until 1984, during which time he also became active in environmental issues, serving for several years as the director of the Denison University wilderness program.
Bill’s interest in the outdoors eventually led to his appointment to the Department of the Interior under then Secretary James Watt of the Reagan Administration, where Bill served for two years as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Budget, and Administration. Those of us who knew Bill personally, also knew him to be an avid mountain climber. Many are the tales that could be told of various “easy hikes” from which we barely escaped with our lives.
Bill first attended a Liberty Fund colloquium in 1975 (E75-0002), directed by Edward B. McLean of Wabash College (who would later become a member of Liberty Fund’s Board of Directors), with then Liberty Fund president, A. Neil McCloud serving as representative. He came to work for Liberty Fund in 1985, after having attended some 21 colloquia in various capacities as conferee, director, author and discussion leader. While an employee, Bill served in various positions, including Director of Publications, Director of Socratic Seminars, Senior Program Officer, and Senior Fellow. He also took on responsibilities at Liberty Fund’s sister institution, Thirty Five Twenty, Inc. (which later became the Pierre F. and Enid Goodrich Foundation in June of 2000), as Director of Grants, and subsequently, Vice President and Director of Grants.
After leaving Liberty Fund in 2001, Bill worked as a private consultant in philanthropy, largely through the various educational endeavors of Richard Cornuelle, and as a writer on environmental subjects from a free market perspective. He also served in various associations, most notably as president of the Philadelphia Society from 1987-88. Bill’s passion for the outdoors drew him ultimately to his much-beloved Mountains in the Bridger Range in Montana. Here he had a spectacular view from his log home where he loved to welcome family and friends and was always the warmest and most gracious of hosts.
For those who did not have the pleasure of knowing Bill personally, you can still obtain a good sense of the person through his legacy, which includes such successful colloquia as “Turning Points in American History” which was a joint project originally conceived with his longtime friend, fellow historian and former Liberty Fund colleague, GM Curtis. Bill also contributed a foreword to the Liberty Fund Edition of Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom and was a recent participant in the Liberty Matters roundtable forum on the same subject. But even better, you can get a good sense of Bill’s endearing personality and keen intellect in the three Intellectual Portrait videos, where he served as interviewer: “A Conversation with Richard Ware;” “A Conversation with Richard Cornuelle,” and “A Conversation with M. Stanton Evans.”
For those of us who did know him, it is easy to understand why Bill became, for so many, the embodiment of Liberty Fund while he was here. He genuinely loved liberty, not just in abstract or philosophical ways, but upfront and personal. He embraced your liberty, which is to say, he was interested in what you had to say, even when you disagreed with him. The reason for that became clear enough. He liked people for all their various quirks and interesting differences, often relishing a good argument. The liberty of discussion was for him the prerequisite for really getting to know both the person and the importance of the principles of freedom and responsibility in general. Bill often said that he never actually left the foundation, but continued to abide in the spirit of its wider mission. Never have I seen a more thoroughly worn and studied edition of Pierre Goodrich’s Basic Memorandum.
Bill shared fully in the commitment to individual freedom. He also had a deep reverence for the traditions and values of civil society in America. It was these interests that drew him to the history of the early republic, environmental conservation, and American conservatism rightly understood. He blazed many trails, both here and in the greater outdoors. As I struggle, in my own feeble way to walk those paths now, I think of him.
As with the generations before him, Bill leaves behind talented heirs to carry on the Dennis legacy, his son William and daughter Jesse. We send them our heartfelt sympathies and our very best wishes for the future.
Senior Fellow, Liberty Fund, Inc.
* I would like to thank Diane Mosbrucker, Bill’s longtime assistant at Liberty Fund for helping me in composing this remembrance.