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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 4, 2007 | Vol. 37 No. 1
Obituary: Milton Cummings, 74, Expert on American Government


By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Milton C. Cummings Jr., a distinguished scholar of American government and an exceedingly popular professor of political science at Johns Hopkins for nearly 40 years, died of prostate cancer on Aug. 10 at a son's home in New Vernon, N.J. He was 74.

For nearly four decades, Cummings offered commentary on congressional elections, party politics and then, later in his career, government policies on the arts. He also was the co-author of a milestone textbook on American politics that has sold nearly a million hardback copies.

Cummings, a former chairman of the Political Science Department, retired from Johns Hopkins in 2004. During his time at the university, Cummings built a reputation as one of the Homewood campus's most beloved professors. He was also renowned for his kindness and good-natured spirit.

Milton Curtis Cummings Jr. was born April 23, 1933, in New Haven, Conn., and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, after his father took a job with the federal government.

Cummings attended Swarthmore College and received his bachelor's degree in 1954. A Rhodes Scholar, he earned a degree in politics in 1956 from Oxford University — where he won the Wylie Prize for an essay on Anglo-American relations — and his doctorate in political science from Harvard University in 1960.

At Harvard, Cummings studied under V.O. Key Jr., the influential scholar and a former president of the American Political Science Association. Upon Key's death, Cummings took on the great responsibility of editing and finishing Key's last manuscript, the landmark text The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting.

Cummings worked at the Brookings Institution in Washington from 1959 until 1965, when he joined the Johns Hopkins faculty as an associate professor. In 1968, he was promoted to professor and served as department chairman from 1970 to 1972.

His popularity as a professor was irrefutable. His classes were always full and often oversubscribed. A resident of Washington, D.C., he frequently stayed overnight in his office on the Homewood campus during the school year, both to minimize his commuting burden and to enable greater interaction with students.

Richard Katz, a professor of political science who first met Cummings in the early 1970s, said that Cummings was astoundingly dedicated to his students, for whom he always found time.

"I sometimes suggested we needed to find a disused church or railway station to accommodate the crowds of students waiting to see him," Katz said. "He took so much time with each student. The demand simply exceeded any normal office hours."

Katz said that students and colleagues alike had a great fondness for the man.

"He just was an incredibly nice person, a true gentleman," Katz said. "In these days, you normally go to a card shop for well wishes; he would always send handwritten notes."

Matthew Crenson, professor of political science, said that Cummings was unfailingly kind and optimistic.

"He always managed to find and bring out the goodness in his colleagues and students. Milt, I believe, came from a Quaker family, and attended a Quaker college, and perhaps that's why he was the department's premier peacemaker," Crenson said. "The students loved him, and he cared deeply about them. During application season, he used to set aside one day a week just to write letters of recommendation."

In 2001, Cummings was honored with a Student Council Award for Excellence in Teaching. In a Gazette article concerning the award, Matt Trezza, then a junior international relations major, said that Cummings' warmth, humor and character in the classroom endeared him to students.

"He's the sort of person you want to have as a professor," Trezza said. "Like when you think of the classical professor, straight from a movie, Dr. Cummings would be a perfect example."

A nationally recognized expert on elections, he served as an NBC News commentator on congressional elections during the 1960s and 1970s.

He was also an author or editor of a number of scholarly books. Notably, Cummings teamed with David Wise, an investigative journalist and White House correspondent, to write a warts-and-all book called Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American Political System, which was first published in 1971. Now in its 10th edition, the book has been used in more than 300 colleges and has sold more than 860,000 copies.

"The Democracy Under Pressure book has for decades been one of the most successful and influential intro-to-American-politics texts," Katz said.

A lover of the arts, especially of opera and classical music, Cummings later combined his interests and became a leading expert in comparative cultural policy. With Katz, he co-edited the 1987 book The Patron State: Government and the Arts in Europe, North America, and Japan, a collection of essays that inspired a new generation of scholars. He also co-edited Who's to Pay for the Arts: The International Search for Models of Arts Support (1989).

Cummings received fellowships and grants for research from the Social Science Research Council and the National Science, Ford and Guggenheim foundations.

Crenson said that Cummings was an exceptional man with a close to photographic memory.

"He could rattle off data about congressional elections the way sports nuts can spout batting averages," he said. "Maybe it was his memory that made it possible for him to function in his office. It was so cluttered with piles of paper that only a narrow path remained between his desk and the door. But he seemed to know where everything was. I suppose that his office was just as retentive as his mind."

Cummings' survivors included three children, Christopher, Jonathan and Susan; and nine grandchildren.


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