David Chalmers, 93, knew how to excel as a professor, an academic and an activist at the same time.
David Chalmers, UF emeritus professor of American history, died Oct. 25 in his Gainesville home in the company of his family. He served in the U.S. Army and was in Europe at the close of World War II. Later in life, he became a professor and scholar at UF as well as an activist outside and inside the classroom.
He will be remembered at UF and in the greater Gainesville community for his long life committed to his family, fighting for justice and teaching with passion, his son Henry Chalmers said.
“He was a very loving and gentle man, a very accepting person,” Henry Chalmers, 57, said.
David Chalmers earned a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Rochester and taught at UF for 39 years, starting in 1955, his son said. He received teaching honors such as UF Teacher-Scholar of the Year in 1973, the UF's oldest and most prestigious faculty award. Students who were at UF back then will remember his father on a positive note in terms of energy, love and kindness, he added.
Since 1965, David Chalmers’ most popular book titled, “Hooded Americanism: A History of the Ku Klux Klan” has been printed continuously and was recognized by the New York Times as “a crucial work.”
David Chalmers' son said that as someone who got involved in the civil rights movement and understood the importance and power of voting, his father never took his right to vote for granted.
With his wife, Jean Chalmers, 87, who was a Gainesville city commissioner in 1982 and Gainesville mayor from 1985 to 1986, the Chalmers had two children, Henry and Kim, 54. They were raised with unconditional love and by leading by example, Henry Chalmers said.
David Chalmers died nine days before the 2020 presidential election, but his wife reassured that his absentee vote for President-elect Joe Biden was counted, according to his obituary.
“He was a lifelong Democrat — cared deeply about politics and cared deeply about the vote,” Henry Chalmers said.
In 1964, David Chalmers went to jail in St. Augustine for participating in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s protests to desegregate local businesses and combat the Ku Klux Klan and police violence there, according to his obituary in the Gainesville Sun.
He was in jail for about a week. During that time, people who had been arrested were kept in outside pens under the sun during the day and then put in crowded cells at night. They had to sleep on the floor, where only those close to the door could breathe some fresh air, his wife, Jean Chalmers, wrote in an email.
"He also could hear the limp of J. B. Stoner, the Birmingham bomber, going up and down the hall outside of the door and hoping that he did not know that the KKK researcher was on the other side of that door," Jean Chalmers said.
His activism includes attending demonstrations against the Vietnam War, among other causes. Michael Gannon, one of his best friends and a widely respected UF history professor, who died in 2017, worked alongside David Chalmers in speaking up against the Vietnam War, his son said.
Henry Chalmers remembers going to a protest against the Vietnam war with his father when he was 10 years old. The protest ended violently at the intersection of University Avenue and 13th Street with a confrontation between protesters and the police, who used tear gas against them, he said. There were more than a thousand protesters involved.
“That always stuck with me — that image and that experience of being involved in something bigger than us,” he said.
Steve Noll, 68, a UF master lecturer in the history department, first met Chalmers in 1982 when he was a graduate student at UF. David Chalmers went from being his history professor and mentor to a friend and colleague.
David Chalmers was active in the civil rights movement and later in the failed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and attended civil rights from 1977 to 1983 by marching, writing letters and going to Tallahassee to push for state ratification, Noll said. He also took part in anti-Vietnam war and pro-LGBTQ+ rights demonstrations.
David Chalmers was a difficult, demanding and hard working professor — one that would make you come out of your shell and think outside the box, Noll said.
David Chalmers always brought in well-known people in the history field to talk to his students, such as historians George Tindall, Sam Hays and Robert Wiebe. He let people around him realize it is possible to be a professor, an academic and an activist at the same time, Noll said.
“He was very involved in trying to improve the position of marginalized people in the community within Gainesville, all the time,” Noll said.
When Noll learned David Chalmers passed away, he felt upset, but he believes his legacy will be carried on through the time he spent at UF and the way he inspired so many generations as an undergraduate professor, historian and activist.
“The person who became integrated into the community as much as David is kind of hard to match,” Noll said.