Legendary history professor Giovanni Costigan dies

Giovanni Costigan

Giovanni Costigan, a loved and legendary campus figure for almost six decades, died March 24 in Seville, Spain. He was 85. The courtly, diminutive, white-haired professor emeritus of history suffered a heart attack during a cruise where, accompanied by his wife, Amne, he was traveling as a guest lecturer.

Costigan was a popular and inspiring professor for 41 years and also was closely associated with UW Alumni Association tours and lectures. In 1970 he received the UWAA’s first Distinguished Teaching Award. He retired in 1975 but continued teaching for the next 14 years as part of the UWAA-sponsored Alumni Lecture Series. His 15th annual series, “The French Revolution: Reflections on Its 200th Anniversary,” was held in April with UW Professor Jon Bridgman as Costigan’s replacement.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames near London, Costigan was the son of a Catholic father and Protestant mother who had fled their native Ireland to escape religious persecution. Described as a sickly child, he developed an early love of reading and history. “Books were my companions—I had no friends or playmates at all,” he once recalled.

Costigan received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in literature from Oxford before coming to America. The scholar earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Wisconsin before coming to the UW in 1934 as a specialist in English and Irish history.

Beginning with his outspoken opposition to General Francisco Franco’s 1936 fascist revolt in Spain, Costigan quickly became known as a champion of political and social liberalism. He was among the first to warn about Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, according to the recollections of the late Solomon Katz, a fellow history professor. Costigan served as a U.S. Air Force officer in intelligence during World War II.

During the 1950s, he vigorously defended UW colleagues against McCarthy-style anti-communist accusations and later became the target of a smear campaign calling for his ouster from campus. During the 1960s and 1970s, he protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam and during the 1980s spoke out against American military ventures in Central America.

A highlight of his career came in November 1971 when, before more than 8,000 spectators in Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Costigan engaged in a riveting, two-and-one-half hour debate with conservative commentator William F. Buckley. Debate moderator Bill Shadel was later quoted as saying that Costigan “mopped the floor with him.”

Remembrances may be made to the Costigan Endowed Scholarship Fund, Department of History, DP-20, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195. Please make checks payable to “University of Washington” and indicate that the gift is for the Costigan fund. Recordings of Costigan’s past UWAA lectures are also available; call Diane Weaver at 543-0540 or 1-800-543- UWAA for more information.