WILLIAM O. MCCAGG (1930-1993) was a gifted linguist and a prolific historian of east-central Europe. He also was a sweet and gentle man who brought out the best in his colleagues. Educated at Harvard where he majored in French and at Columbia where he earned his Ph.D. in History, Bill came to MSU in the mid-1960s. He stayed for 30 years, raising two daughters with his wife Louise, a talented sculptor. The McCaggs lived in Bath Township in the “three house,” an idiosyncratic wooden structure built around a large tree.
Fluent in seven languages including Hungarian and Czech, Bill McCagg focused his scholarly attention on the Jews of east-central Europe. His two best known books, Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary (1972) and A History of Habsburg Jews (1990) evoked a world as attractive as it was fleeting. He also wrote Stalin Embattled (1979), a study of the immediate post-World War II Eastern Bloc whose interpretation of Stalin’s relatively moderateness defied Cold War conventions.
As he grew increasingly hard of hearing, Bill developed an interest in the history of that and other disabilities particularly in the Eastern Bloc countries. From this interest came the idea of hosting a conference on the subject. This, the first of its kind, served as the basis for The Disabled of the Soviet Union: Past and Present, Theory and Practice (1989), a volume of papers co-edited with Lewis Siegelbaum.
Several scholars working on the history of disability and the disabled in Russia and the Soviet Union have since noted that this book was foundational. Bill found funds to finance the making of a feature film on the subject of his own deafness. The film “Ben’s Bridge” (1992) was a German-Hungarian-US co-production. Bill wrote the screenplay and also appeared in the role of a deaf professor alongside the well-known Polish actors Jerzy Stuhr and Dorota Segda. The film had its world premier at the Odeon Theater at the Frandor Shopping Center.
In 1992 he took leave from his position as Director of the Russian and East European program to move to New York City where he died of colon cancer in June 1993.