OBITUARY: Gus Caesar
Thursday 14 September 1995
Born Alfred Augustus Levi Caesar, son of Julius Caesar, he was termed Gus from his Southampton schooldays. Apart from a brief spell at Newcastle University before the Second World War and wartime service with the Admiralty, he had a quintessentially Cambridge career. He came up on a pounds 20 Exhibition to St Catharine's College in 1933, gained double Firsts in Geography and was elected to a postgraduate scholarship in 1936. After the war he returned to a university lectureship and fellowship at Selwyn College and in 1951 moved back to his old college. For the next 30 years he was to hold almost every senior college post except that of Master.
For a Higher Education Funding Council review, Caesar's reputation would be an enigma. He wrote relatively little, held few awards, and occupied only one visiting position overseas (a professorship at Minnesota). Yet his standing and his influence within academic geography were immense.
The secret lay not in his Cambridge lectures on economic geography, on British regional planning, or on the Soviet reorganisation of Eastern Europe, although these were models of clarity and precision. The key lay in his tutorials (or to use the Cambridge term, supervisions). No one who experienced the hour-long inquisitions in his rooms on Main Court at St Catharine's, delivered through a haze of Three Nuns pipe smoke, will forget the process. Essays were disassembled, the reasonable parts retained, new components added, and the whole reassembled into something that was well ordered, logical and, above all, geographically sound. He had an innate sense of what gave coherence to a geographical point of view and drove that relentlessly into those he taught.
St Catharine's was an ideal arena within which to exercise Caesar's talents. With St John's, it had pioneered Open Scholarships in Geography and the growth of the subject in the post-war years brought with it a stream of the most talented youngsters in their cohort. So much so that St Catharine's under Caesar's tutelage dominated the First Class lists in that Tripos in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result Caesar had a hand in the careers of literally scores of young men (and through his supervision of Newnham and Girton geographers, young women) who were to go on to lead the subject in many British and Commonwealth universities.
Dubbed irreverently "Caesar's Praetorian Guard", they came together in 1970 to write a festschrift volume - Spatial Policy Problems in the British Economy.
If Caesar had been a more ambitious or a more selfish man, he would have had a sheaf of publications to his name, but paradoxically his contribution would be less. He chose to work through others, and the shelf of volumes written by his students and the debt which they confess in prefaces to his encouragement and critical eye are a tribute to a Cambridge system more intricate and more sensitive than any accountancy-based evaluation is ever likely to catch.
All this was heightened by his own personality. With growling voice and the massive bulk of a second-row forward, Gus Caesar appeared ferocious. And as a Dean on the warpath after a rowdy boat-club supper, this image could stand him in good stead. But the reality was of a gentle and ever kindly man for whom the individual undergraduate (particularly if from St Catharine's) could always ask for support. His college house on Grantchester Meadows was a haven through which hundreds of visitors passed each year. His wife, Margaret, and daughter, Pat, could calculate to a nicety the strength of undergraduate appetites after the towpath walk back from Grantchester.
Retirement brought crippling ill-health and, particularly after his wife's death, his spirit flagged. But there were often flashes of the old humour and occasionally one of the stories which had made him one of the most sought after-dinner speakers in Cambridge.
Gus Caesar had a vision of a college in which meticulous tutorial support at the undergraduate stage would bring, in due season, its own rich harvest of graduate research and post-doctoral scholarship. It was a measured and long-term view of life of which even his illustrious Roman namesake might well have approved.
Alfred Augustus Levi Caesar, geographer: born Southampton 22 November 1914; University Lecturer in Geography, Cambridge University 1948-80; Fellow, Selwyn College, Cambridge 1948-51; Fellow, St Catharine's College, Cambridge 1951-80 (Emeritus), Dean 1955-59 , Tutor 1959-67, Senior Tutor 1967-77, President 1978-80; married 1940 Margaret Clark (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 9 September 1995.
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