Whether the subject is city-wide disasters, the history of San Francisco or the finer points of basketball, Roger Lotchin ’57 is as reliable as an encyclopedia.
His most recent publication, “Narratives of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906,” a collection of written accounts from the disaster that still scars the bay today, was released in December 2011.
Lotchin teaches history at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and has been studying the urban history of San Francisco since his graduate school years at the University of Chicago. His study began with the California Gold Rush.
He was orginally advised to research Los Angeles, but “San Francisco looked more exciting,” Lotchin says. “During the Gold Rush, it was an explosive, dynamic out-of-control place,” so he dove into the study and found a historical gold mine of his own.
He cultivated his knowledge of San Francisco while writing a large collection of books on the subject, including “The Bad City in the Good War,” which highlights the accomplishments of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles during World War II, despite the common misconception that the city was solely a land of danger and corruption.
Although experienced in the urban dynamic of the City by the Bay, Lotchin did not write specifically about the disaster in San Francisco until Charles Morris’ “The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire” was released, for which Lotchin wrote the introduction.
Taking notice of his work, publisher R.R. Donnelley asked Lotchin to edit a 2011 addition to their Lakeside Classics collection, “Narratives of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.”
Lotchin gladly accepted. “All I had to do was validate it,” he says, “and I couldn’t think of any one of them that I would have thrown out. For example, the first narrative was a painter. He’s crucial, because he was one of the last people to see San Francisco whole before it burned down.”
According to Lotchin, the disaster was largely due to poor planning. “From a planning standpoint, I think almost all of the great American cities shouldn’t have been put where they are,” he says.
Despite San Francisco’s inopportune location, there was little chance that its inhabitants would leave, even after the earthquake and fire. Beneath all the destruction were their lives and infrastructure, not to mention the importance of having a place to call home. “At that time, San Francisco was well-loved,” Lotchin says. “There was a tremendous emotional attachment to the place.”
Lotchin is similarly attached to his alma mater. He attended Millikin as a physical education and history major, and continued his study of history in graduate school in Chicago.
In addition, the 6’ 5½” Lotchin was an all-star player on Millikin’s basketball team and was inducted into the Big Blue’s Athletic Hall of Fame. He averaged 23.3 rebounds per game his junior year, graduated as the school’s second leading scorer, and was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) Hall of Fame in 1997, an honor he shares with his coach from his undergraduate years, Ralph Allan ’37. More recently, Lotchin was honored at a home game in February, receiving a framed jersey bearing his name and number from Men’s Basketball Coach Matt Nadelhoffer (see above photo).
His pride in his success is dwarfed by his ever-present pride for his teammates, whether they were running in the frigid cold as punishment for a loss or banding together in the last seconds of a game to clinch a victory.
Lotchin was recognized both for his service to Millikin and for his accomplishments in his field with the Merit-Loyalty award in 1985. He was also one of only 100 living alumni inducted into the Millikin Medallion Society in 2003, which honors those individuals who have had the greatest impact on the university in it’s more than 100-year history.
When asked about his accomplished basketball career, he does not dwell on his success. He shrugs and, with a small smile, says, “Yeah, I had a good run.”
Lotchin attributes much of his professional success to the influence of specific Millikin faculty during his undergraduate years. “I was very much influenced by Daniel Gage, the late professor of history and political science, who influenced any number of students,” Lotchin says, “and his partner in crime was the late Willis Walker ’52,” both of whom Lotchin says pushed him towards his “ultimate destiny” and career.
He recalls seeking the guidance of the late Glen Smith, dean of the School of Business and Industrial Management, when Lotchin found himself teaching economics in Shelbyville, knowing nothing about the subject. Even though Lotchin had already graduated, Smith took the time to coach him on the lessons he needed to teach his students and himself.
Lotchin’s passion for history was fueled during his undergraduate years, but it was cemented in 1959, when he participated in a tour of the Soviet Union led by the school’s president at that time, Dr. Paul McKay.
“It was the first time I had been abroad,” Lotchin says. “We got to Russia and went to nine cities in 23 days. It really opened my eyes to the depth and breadth of culture and ideas. That was a life-transforming experience for me.”
After seeing the Soviet Union, Lotchin attended the University of Chicago and attained his doctorate in 1969. He and his wife, Phyllis “Smokey” Jo Morris Lotchin ’59, have both taught at UNC, though Smokey has since retired.
“She’s a really gifted teacher,” Lotchin says of his wife. “She can light the room up just by walking in.”
Lotchin even had the opportunity to teach his son, Theodore, for a semester. “It was scary at first. I was nervous, he was nervous, but I was over it after about two classes. I probably learned more from him than he did from me that semester.”
As a father, Roger Lotchin is content to watch his son reach success, and be bested by him in tennis, but as a historian he will continue to open up the world to his readers, just as Millikin opened up the world to him.