Stanley Kutler, the pre-eminent historian on Nixon-Watergate, lover of words and the freedom to use them, and the sort of professor who considered providing inspiration to be part of his mission, died Tuesday.

The longtime UW-Madison history professor and prolific writer was 80 and had been in ill health, according to his son, Andy.

Known as an enthusiastic teacher and mentor, Kutler rose to national fame with a celebrated, prolonged and eventually successful legal effort to make public the secretly recorded conversations made in the White House during the years of President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon resigned after fallout from a bungled burglary reached into the Oval Office. The disgraced president fought efforts to reveal the content of the recordings.

Scholars, journalists, Nixon defenders, critics and historians alike benefited from the revelations in the transcripts. Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a longtime friend and former student of Kutler, saluted him Tuesday for devoting “his professional life to shining a bright light on one of America’s darkest (corners). Our democracy is stronger because of Stanley Kutler’s work.”

Kutler wrote “The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon,” published in 1990; and the best seller, “Abuse of Power, The New Nixon Tapes,” in 1997. His “American Inquisition,” about frightening government restrictions during the Cold War, came out in 1983. He admitted to a fascination with finding out what made Nixon tick, wrote scores of articles on related topics and even co-wrote with comedian Harry Shearer a series, “Nixon’s the One,” for British television.

He was also, said son Andy, one of those professors a student never forgets. (The government tried, once, by putting Kutler in 1984 on a blacklist kept by the U.S. Information Agency of people banned from its speakers’ program.)

“He would get mail from former students saying that a senior seminar back in 1974 inspired them to go do this or that. We couldn’t go to a restaurant or anywhere without someone stopping him to comment what an influence or inspiration he had been.”

One of those students was Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who Tuesday night recalled Kutler as his undergraduate American history professor and then, his friend: “He was the one who advised me to go to law school.

“He was a teacher, adviser, friend, just about everything to a whole cadre of undergraduates he inspired and advised. He gave advice about life. His relationships with students did not end at the conclusion of a semester,” Soglin said.

“His absolute favorite thing was having lunch with a student at the union,” said Andy Kutler.

After teaching from 1964 to 1996, Kutler remained an active emeritus professor as a writer, consultant, commentator and supporter of the UW-Madison, where the Stanley and Sandra Kutler Lectures are a hallmark of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies.

Kutler was a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and a graduate of Bowling Green University, where he met his wife. She survives him, in addition to sons Andy and David, and daughter Susan. Another son, Jeff, is deceased. A service at Temple Beth El is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

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