John Foster Dulles; History Scholar

John Foster Dulles, 95, was a University of Texas professor.
John Foster Dulles, 95, was a University of Texas professor. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

John Foster Dulles, 95, a noted Brazilian history scholar and the eldest son of the former secretary of state, died of kidney failure June 23 at North Central Baptist Hospital in San Antonio.

Mr. Dulles, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Austin for 45 years and the author of books on Brazil and Mexico, was preparing for the fall semester until he became ill June 12. His wife of 68 years, Eleanor Ritter Dulles, died four days before her husband.

"He was a real character," said Tom Staley, director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. "We referred to him as 'Cactus Jack,' because he wrote these books about Brazil and Mexico. His students loved him."

John Watson Foster Dulles was born in Auburn, N.Y., and received a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Princeton University in 1935. He received a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1937 and then joined the Bank of New York, where his father, long before he became President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, was a director.

Banking was a bit tame for the young Mr. Dulles, so he went to work for a New York import-export business, C. Tennant Sons & Co. The company sent him to Nogales, Ariz., to work in a company mine.

He and his new wife, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia architect, liked frontier Arizona, far from their Northeastern establishment families. In addition to his father, for whom the airport is named, Mr. Dulles's great-grandfather and a great-uncle also were secretaries of state. His uncle, Allen Dulles, would become head of the CIA, and his aunt, Eleanor Lansing Dulles, was a State Department official known as "the mother of Berlin" for her role in the city's recovery after World War II. His brother, Avery Robert Dulles, would become the first American priest to be elevated to cardinal without having been a bishop.

In Arizona, Mr. Dulles enjoyed his work as a "mucker," who is "someone on the wrong end of a shovel," he once said. Mining was dangerous, although Mr. Dulles's only accident occurred in his car, which he called "Clifton." Driving the convertible home one evening, he left the miner's arc lamp on his helmet burning, and the car's canvas top caught fire.

He received another bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona's School of Mines and Metallurgy in 1943 and then took a position in Monterrey, Mexico, with Cia Metalurgica Penoles, a subsidiary of American Metal. He was in Mexico for 16 years, eventually becoming executive vice president of Penoles.

In 1959, Mr. Dulles moved to Rio de Janeiro to take a position with Hanna Mining Co. of Cleveland. The company owned a money-losing gold mine in Brazil, and Mr. Dulles was given the job of making it profitable.

The task proved impossible, given Brazil's political turbulence, and he left in 1962 to become a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Texas. For 25 years, he taught simultaneously at the University of Arizona.

His first book, "Yesterday in Mexico: A Chronicle of the Revolution, 1919-1936" (1962), grew out of an impromptu conversation with Mexican President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines about Mexican history. Mr. Dulles also interviewed several of the aging figures of the Mexican Revolution, including former president Lazaro Cardenas.

He wrote 12 books and numerous articles on 20th-century Brazilian history, including "Resisting Brazil's Military Regime" (2007), the second of a two-volume work on Brazilian reformer Sobral Pinto.

Mr. Dulles was an avid tennis player. "He was beating me into his 80s," said his son, John F. Dulles II, who recalled that his intensively competitive father often resorted to a ploy. He always tried to play on the hottest days, on clay courts, and in the middle of a match, he would collapse on the court, lying sprawled on his back for minutes. "After that, you'd have second thoughts about beating an old man," his son said.

Living in San Antonio, where his wife enjoyed the company of Monterrey expatriates, he made the 180-mile round trip to Austin three times a week. Since the university forbade him to smoke his omnipresent pipe in campus buildings, he worked out of an office on the 27th floor of an off-campus high-rise. Students met with him in a warren of rooms suffused with the pungent odor of pipe smoke and stuffed with books, papers and memorabilia collected over nine decades.

Survivors, in addition to his son, of Denver, include three other children, Edith Lawlis Dulles of Dallas, Ellen Dulles-Coelho of San Antonio and R. Avery Dulles of Austin; his brother, Cardinal Dulles, of New York; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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