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Robin Okey (1942 - 2023): In memoriam

The History department is sad to announce the death of emeritus Professor Robin Okey. Robin taught in the department from 1966 until his retirement in 2007.

Professor Chris Read, initial notification Friday 15/12/2023.

Dear Friends,

I have very sad news. Robin has slipped away from us. He was found about four hours ago by Sue, a wonderful, concerned neighbour. She found Robin sitting on his sofa with his head back and mouth open as though he were having a nap. He had a dinner tray on his lap and a fork still in his hand. He was wearing his old, battered duffel coat and red scarf. It is possible that he died as long ago as Tuesday evening but that is not confirmed.

We stayed with him as the doctor and paramedics dealt with the formalities and Sue and I accompanied him on his last journey out of his house to the ambulance. In a way, it is a poetic finale - he fought and won his last battles, got his book out and enjoyed a reception in his honour ten days ago put on by the street he lives in. That was the last time I saw him. He was happy, smiling, appreciative of his neighbour's efforts. His passing was a gentle one in a typically Robin way. For me, however, the overwhelming reaction is one of the unexpectedness of it. Neither he nor anyone else saw it coming. He had been physically weak but some of his energy had returned and he was getting around better than he had been for many months.

I have spoken to his niece, to whom he was very close, and other family members who are all very shocked and taken by surprise. Our thoughts are with them. He and Fred Reid and I were scheduled for one of our Friday afternoon tea and cake sessions. I am really going to miss his wisdom and thoughtfulness as we straightened out the knotty problems of history and of contemporary politics. We are all going to miss him enormously. In Fred's words 'we will not see his like again.'

Tributes to Robin Okey from members of the Warwick History Department:

Professor Tim Lockley (Head of the History Department, University of Warwick)

Robin was always such a gentle soul, a very old school academic in many ways.

Dr Jonathan Davies (University of Warwick)

I am very sorry to hear this news. He was the kindest and most brilliant of men and I shall miss him.

Dr Claudia Stein (University of Warwick)

How sad to hear the news about Robin. But I am also glad that he was able to see his book published and enjoy the reception in his honour. I also felt that it was sooooo Robin to wear his old duffel coat and red scarf on his last journey. I saw him so many times in the library wearing them!

Professor Christoph Mick (University of Warwick)

Robin was a true scholar. I was in awe of his knowledge of languages which was superior to that of anyone I know. His mind was sharp and he was quick–witted – if he had to be. Much more in character for him was to wait and think before responding or intervening in a discussion. After having considered the matter from all sides he would finally come up with a fresh approach informed by his vast knowledge and guided by his intellectual curiosity. Yet this erudition was accompanied by unfailing kindness. He was unique and he will be truly missed.

Professor Peter Marshall (University of Warwick)

I was immensely fond of Robin. He very properly took many things seriously but had a real sense of fun too. I was always in awe of his erudition but admired still more his warmth and gentleness, and his strong sense of responsibility towards his students. A good life, well lived.

Professor Hilary Marland (University of Warwick

What sad news of Robin’s passing. I was lucky enough to be taught by Robin when I did my Hist/Pol. degree at Warwick. Only lectures sadly, but these were memorable and brilliant. I also have fond recollections of Robin’s mathematical abilities in exam boards - a highlight of these often (in the old days) interminable meetings was Robin’s ability to recalculate overall marks within seconds when adjustments were made to individual modules. Robin was a wonderful colleague, extraordinarily knowledgeable and interesting, and a kind and gentle man.

Professor Bernard Capp (Warwick University emeritus)

It's terribly sad. Fred is right that we'll never see his like again. Someone else remarked a few weeks ago that there is no place now for academics in Robin's mould- not that there was a mould, he truly was unique. I'm glad at least that his end was so peaceful, and that his faithful duffel coat lasted to the very end.

Three Robins, and all gone in the space of not much more than a year.

Professor Maxine Berg (University of Warwick emeritus)

I do look forward to finding Robin’s new book on Wales and Slovenia – what a good subject. I last talked to Robin when we met at the library collecting books during the pandemic. I was then working on my slavery book and reading much about Wales. We were both reading about copper in Wales and discussed a big book by Evans and Miskall on Swansea Copper.

Professor Maria Luddy (University of Warwick emeritus)

I am very sad to hear of Robin's passing. I was very fond of Robin, he was one of those people that you would just be fond of. I always liked chatting with him and he was always really interesting.

Professor Gad Heuman (University of Warwick emeritus)

Very sad news about such a lovely man. But good to hear that the end was gentle.

Professor Guy Thomson (University of Warwick emeritus)

Only a few weeks ago I held Robin’s arm as we gathered, carrying our coffees, for your talk on Russia at Scarman House. What fierce independence and commitment to his subject until the last! From your touching account it seems that he went peacefully.

Our offices faced each other in that long period when the department offered such camaraderie. I would stroll into his office after teaching to refresh my Austro-Hungarian history from his bookshelves.

Dr Fred Reid (University of Warwick emeritus)

One of the most authentic human beings I have known.

Professor Tony McFarlane (University of Warwick emeritus)

What sad news indeed. It is good to hear that Robin passed away peacefully, in accord, as you say, with his gentle personality. But unexpected: on my brief encounter with him at your talk, he seemed in good shape and on the up.

It's so good that he saw his book come out and heartening to hear that his neighbours were so supportive. Thanks to you, too, and to Fred for the support which you gave him, of inestimable value to Robin, who thrived from the closeness and intellectual companionship of his old friends.

Additional tributes:

Professor Ala Szczepura (University of Warwick, Warwick Medical School - Health Sciences)

I saw Robin last month when he came along to Warwick Retired Staff Association event. We sat next to one another over lunch. He did look frail - but, as ever, was a delight to talk to.

University of Wales Press

19th December 2023

UWP would like to extend their condolences to the family and friends of Robin Okey on their recent loss.

Robin Okey was born in Cardiff during the Second World War. He received his higher education at Oxford University before lecturing in modern history at Warwick University for over forty years. He was an Emeritus Professor with the university after retiring in 2007. He published a number of important volumes on the history of central and eastern Europe in the modern period, including Eastern Europe 1740-1980. Feudalism to Communism (1982), and Taming Balkan Nationalism. The Habsburg ’Civilizing Mission’ in Bosnia, 1878-1914 (2007). He also researched various aspects of Welsh history for many decades, publishing pioneering articles in journals such as Y Traethodydd and Planet. John Davies descried him in his masterpiece The History of Wales (1990) as the ‘most exciting of our historians’. His last book, Towards Modern Nationhood:Wales and Slovenia, c. 1750-1918, was published by University of Wales Press in November this year, the culmination of his research over many years comparing Wales’s modern historical development with that of other small nations in Europe. The book has been highly praised by other historians, such as Dr Simon Brooks who described it as: ‘An astonishing book that argues, despite much noise to the contrary, that Wales was, is and will be a nation. However, the way it became a nation differed from the continental European model, and by comparing Wales with Slovenia, Robin Okey shows that while nationalism is a singular noun it is indeed a plural experience’.

British Association for East European Studies

Dear all BASEES members ,

Members will be sad to learn that Robin Okey, Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick, died suddenly in mid-December. He is probably best known for his magnificent overview Eastern Europe 1740-1980. Feudalism to Communism (Routledge 1982) and, happily, he lived long enough to see his latest book, a wonderful comparison of how Slovenia and Wales established their claims to nationhood, published a month ago. (Towards Modern Nationhood: Wales and Slovenia in Comparison c.1750-1918 University of Wales Press). A fuller obituary will follow. Robin will be widely missed by family, friends, colleagues and the scholarly community.

Please do of course pass on this sad news to your respective scholarly networks across the globe.

BASEES Bulletin 167 December 2023

BASEES members will be sad to learn of the recent death of Robin Okey, Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick, where he previously taught and lectured on modern history for over forty years. During this long and distinguished career, Professor Okey garnered international recognition as an authority on central and eastern Europe since the eighteenth century and, more recently, the emergence of nationalism across differing cultural and regional contexts, notably in Wales. His best-known, and arguably most important, texts included Eastern Europe 1740-1980: From Feudalism to Communism (1982) and Taming Balkan Nationalism: The Habsburg ’Civilizing Mission’ in Bosnia, 1878-1914 (2007). Professor Okey's final book, Towards Modern Nationhood: Wales and Slovenia in Comparison c.1750-1918, which compares Wales' modern national development with that of its continental counterpart, was published in November 2023.
A full obituary will be published in 2024.

Simon Brooks University of Swansea

Sadly, I heard from Neil Evans that Robin died earlier this week. I know that this is a terrible shock to you and others in Kenilworth and Warwick, and I wanted to send my condolences.

I last spoke to Robin about 3 weeks ago when I phoned to congratulate him on the publication, finally, of his book. Thank you for everything you did to help enable that to happen. The initial response to the book in Wales has been very positive, which I conveyed to Robin, and I hope that it was of comfort to him that the book has been well received.

John Read (Friend since childhood)

I was very sorry to hear of the death of Robin. Sad, but glad to hear that his passing was without the suffering which had blighted his life over the last year or so.
I have known Robin since we were in primary school together in Rhiwbina and he always remained one of my closest, and perhaps my most lovably eccentric friend.
All of us who knew him will remember him for his goodness and gentleness, his erudition and, in my case, his patience with those who were not in the same intellectual league. 

It would be good to put together a polished note on this topic but instead here are a few jottings as they occur to me, largely in chronological order.

Robin arriving in school in the depths of winter on his bicycle with no coat. He had forgotten it.
Attaining a mark of 97% in Trigonometry and being concerned about where the 3% had gone.

Playing a game we had devised of a form of handball tennis using the old cricket wicket hard standings, and also playing many games of table tennis. In both cases he played a strongly defensive game and I seldom beat him. [Note: John, you might be interested to know Robin’s defensive approach to table tennis stayed with him. When he played for the university staff team the Coventry and District League received complaints about him because the matches in which he was involved lasted so long. CR]

Irritatingly, for me as someone who loathed team games with a passion, Robin played a good game of rugby and cricket as well as being an intellectual.

Robin holding competitions with a boy called Dunkley to see who could remember the most obscure historical dates. A typical example “When was the Empress of China’s Summer Palace burned down?” (Burned down by the British in 1860 if you really want to know).

Helping me to absorb the basic framework of Welsh grammar after I had wasted away 5 disinterested years - I wanted to learn German. Armed with this and a word list I did pass O3 level including oral - which is another story.

Cycling to St Fagan’s to see the Welsh cultural museum. Over a sandwich lunch Robin read Jane Austen.

Visiting me at home when I had broken a heel cycling in Texas. We talked for five hours and at the end he casually mentioned that a colleague in Serbia had raised the question of why Serbia had become a nation whereas Wales had not. (This eventually became the theme of his last book). If I remember rightly he put this down at the time to the influence of the Non-Conformist churches. I innocently ventured 6 or 7 other possible reasons. Little did I know the passion with which an historian will defend a cherished idea. I was directed to an article by Robin - it ran to 50 pages.

Having freewheeling discussions over lunch with Robin about a huge range of topics - history (obviously), languages, latterly linguistics, religion and politics.

I asked Robin how many languages he spoke or understood. He replied “Starting with English, then Welsh, and of course I had to learn Serbo-Croat (and the Cyrillic written form) for my dissertation and that is very similar to Russian. German and of course some of the Romance languages which are not very interesting because they are all much the same.”

Arguing with my contention that the inhabitants of immediately post Roman eastern half of Britain spoke a proto-Germanic language which allowed an easy adoption of what became Old English (Anglo Saxon). He would have none of this, firmly asserting that they spoke Brythonic Celtic.
Arriving at Avignon TGV for a holiday with Jane and me being unable to find public transport to Avignon central to get to a station near us and being taken the whole way by a kind English couple. I picked him up at Monteux sporting the most disreputable straw hat I have ever seen. We had some splendid walks in the hills above St Hippolyte le Graveyron.

Drinking tea in his home, surrounded by books and sitting in the most excruciatingly uncomfortable chairs.

Seeing Robin’s life of almost monastic simplicity in terms of personal expenditure whilst at the same time learning of his being being generous both with his time and his finances in the service of his friends.

So farewell old friend. Neither of us have a belief in an afterlife but if by any chance there was one and we were able to meet again …………….I would still challenge your views about the language spoken by the post Roman Britons.

Vivien Clifton-Jones

Thank you for your email and for letting me know the very sad news about Robin Okey. I was very pleased to receive a lovely email from him just the end of November with no hint of what was to come. I knew that he had been unwell with mental health issues and that he always worried about his health, but it is a shock to hear of his passing, such a sad loss and I will miss him.

Sue Davies, Bertie Road neighbour

I was lucky to have Robin as my next door neighbour when I moved in to Bertie Road in January 2017. Although he was a very private person, we struck up a warm friendship from the word go. He was a lovely, charming man who was easy company. I recall many good conversations shared over a glass of wine in my garden or at a neighbour’s house. And his face always lit up when I popped round with a slice or two of home-made cake to share.

Whilst Robin certainly had a brilliant mind, things of a more practical nature did not come naturally to him. I recall with fond amusement Robin’s recent attempts at “slow-cooker cookery”, following a short course at the Kenilworth Centre. He was so keen to have a go, but lacked the confidence to put it into practice - so I was telephoned numerous times at each stage of the recipe to confirm what to do next. I was so touched to think that Robin trusted me enough to ask for my advice.

It saddens me deeply to think that he has gone and that my phone won’t ever display “Robin” when it rings in future.

I will miss him greatly.

Colin Jones (Queen Mary University of London formerly of Warwick)

I was very sad to hear this news since, as a lot of colleagues I suspect, I had a very soft spot for him. He was such a character and an eccentric in many ways, but razor-sharp intellectually while also extremely kind and such a gentle man too – a gentleman in a very Welsh way. We shared a passion for rugby though he confided he couldn’t watch much of the Welsh games as he got too excited. I think everyone will have an anecdote about him – and all accrue to his credit.

I think I was last in touch with him when we were co-authoring Gwynne’s obituary for the Guardian. When I thought of him, it was always with a smile. It is a sad loss but it sounds as though it was a gentle passing which is very fitting.

Aled Jones (University of Aberystwyth emeritus)

Oh no! I’ve known him since my teens, and he later taught me at Warwick and often came round to our house in Earlsdon for a drink. Only a year or so ago I was on one of the LSW committees with him. But, there he was, writing to the end. A fine example to us all.

[LSW = Learned Society of Wales.]

Christopher Clark (University of Connecticut formerly of Warwick)

I'm so sorry to learn of the sad news about Robin Okey. I always admired his devotion to scholarship and to students. He was an unfailingly kindly, gentle, and considerate colleague and will be remembered with affection.

You mentioned that he had completed his book. I now realize, having looked it up, that it only appeared last month. I do hope that Robin was pleased with it and felt the satisfaction of a job well done. I would have written this message an hour ago, but instead found myself reading Robin's remarkable introduction and being drawn by it into a study that only he could have conceived and then executed in such an intelligent and engaging way. I shall now have to get the book and read it, albeit with regret that there'll be no opportunity to express appreciation to Robin, or to ask him questions that I'm sure it will inspire. You, Fred, and others will be missing Robin's company and conversation, and I sympathize with you.

Sarah Lewis (University of Wales Press)

I’m shocked I have to say, but am so pleased his book was published very shortly before Robin passed away. Since the book’s publication, I’ve been contracted by a number of people asking about the book, and remembering Robin’s wonderful lectures they attended as students. He will be remembered as a great scholar but also as a lovely man.

Carol Ruddock (Friend from childhood)

I knew Robin from primary school upwards. He was always cleverer than us but was such a gentle soul. He will be missed.

Llion Wigley (University of Wales Press)

I’m very glad that Robin was able to see the book published and that a celebration was held in his street to mark this; it sounds like a lovely occasion. He was clearly a very special man and I’m honoured to have been able to assist him in publishing his very important book.

Patrick Major (University of Reading formerly of Warwick)

I did bump into Robin a few months ago on the platform at Leamington station. It was in fact two trains coupled together and I had to sprint up to the bike rack in the rear train, thinking that would be the end of our brief encounter. But whom should I see jumping trains at Banbury, with great presence of mind and a remarkable turn of speed, than Prof. Okey. I am glad that fate brought us together for one last catch-up with this most memorable of colleagues.

Professor Sarah Richardson (University of Glasgow formerly of Warwick)

So sad to hear this, Robin was absolutely unique. I will miss him so much.

Neil Evans (Coleg Harlech emeritus)

How sad. I've just got his book for review today and was looking forward to re-reading it and giving it the praise it deserves in public.

Dafydd Jones (University of Wales Press)

It’s very difficult to write this email – thank you for the sensitive words you wrote last Friday evening, it must be an extremely sad time for you, and for Robin’s friends and family, his passing comes as a shock to all, but I would like to believe it was peaceful and that Robin was content.

I have rarely had the privilege of working with as eloquent an author as Robin – despite the obstacles that he overcame in the last two years of his life, there were passages of wonderful lucidity, and I have kept all of the handwritten notes he sent me with the kind things he said.

Janet Ainsworth and Robin’s neighbours in Bertie Road.

The Professor’ as Robin’s neighbours knew him, was instantly recognisable in winter in his black duffel coat and bright red scarf, crossing the road deep in thought, oblivious of people or traffic. Such an engaging, interesting and agreeable guest at neighbourly get togethers. A private man who nevertherless, when he needed help was unfailingly cheerful and appreciative.

We, his neighbours are saddened by his unexpected passing and will all miss him.

Julie Heptinstall (23 Bertie Road)

Robin was a wonderful, warm neighbour once we got to know each other: he kept my late husband entertained at social gatherings.

Gerd-Rainer Horn (Sciences Po: The Paris Institute of Political Studies formerly of Warwick)

Robin's did not always take into account the constraints of reality (I mean that in a mostly positive way). It was somewhere in the Charente during our first walk that he not only first regaled me with stories of what eventually became his final book, but where I noticed his attention to detail, which was one of his many strengths, but occasionally a weakness. It was a hot afternoon in the countryside. We came through a little village. On the vast horizon huge thunderheads were billowing up to 30.000 feet or so, and we still had a ways to go. But there was a board with announcements of the municipality in a small park in the village square. He loved to read those things, and he then spent part of the time it took us to get to the next village telling me what he had learned from those notices. Cultural history at its finest. In this particular instance, I soon grew worried about his insistence to read through all those messages. I pointed at the dark clouds in the distance that were coming slowly closer. It took some powers of persuasion to pry him loose from those sources of insights into the finer points of quotidian life in rural France of the early twenty-first century.

Before that first hike in SW France, we spent a night in Paris. He then told me that this was the first time in - I seem to remember - forty-two years that he had stepped onto French soil. He read French without difficulty. The first evening on the trail, in a Chambre d'Hôtes, where the man of the house was the bus driver who brought us to Pensol, and where the woman of the house was responsible for raising geese to fashion foie gras, we benefited from dinner with the hosts at their table. And here I learned that Robin could also converse in impressive and nearly flawless French - not having been to France for nearly a lifetime....

He also sent postcards to my mother on a few occasions. They had met underneath the apple tree in my backyard on Blondvil Street where my mother had served them (and me and my father) Königsberger Klops. Those cards were finely constructed German sentences, flawless sentences, with one long sentence covering the card, in Robin's characteristic small handwriting. Sentences that were kind and observant and, to me, ultimately proof positive of his cosmopolitan culture.

Kevin Passmore (University of Cardiff)

I am saddened to hear of the passing of Robin Okey. Having taken his undergraduate classes back in the 1970s, I can testify not only to his intellectual brilliance, but to his knack of getting the best out students. I and my colleagues at Cardiff University look forward to reading his comparison of nationalism in Slovenia and his native Wales.

Tributes from social media platform X (formerly Twitter)

Robin Okey

Photo courtesy of Simon Brooks: Robin at Harrington’s, Kenilworth, March 2022.