Bruce Sigmund Fetter


Bruce Sigmund Fetter, Professor Emeritus of History, died of cancer at his home in Milwaukee on Thursday April 20, 2017. He was 78.

Born on June 8, 1938 in Ashland, Kentucky to Henry Fetter and Sylvia (Freedman) Levine, the family moved several times before settling in Parkersburg, West Virginia for Bruce's senior year of high school. Bruce was Class of 1960 at Harvard, Dunster House, major: History and Literature, A.B. cum laude, a MPhil from Oxford, and a PhD in African History from University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was also a Fulbright Scholar, first in Lubumbashi from 1972 to 1973 and later in Bujumbura in 1986. Bruce taught at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) from 1967 until his retirement, including a term as History Department Chair from 1995 to 1998.

His books included Colonial Rule and Regional Imbalance in Central Africa, The Creation of Elisabethville, 1910-1940, and Demography from Scanty Evidence: Central Africa in the Colonial Era. He was editor of the social science journal Urbanism Past and Present, a publication that reinforced UWM's reputation as a center of urban scholarship.

In his later years, Professor Fetter's research interests turned toward matters of public health and historical demography. In addition to teaching African History, he developed and passionately taught a course on the use of maps as historical sources, sharing the treasures of UWM's American Geographical Society Library with generations of students. In addition to having devoted his career to UWM, Professor Fetter was a generous supporter of the university's History and French departments, the L&S New Directions Fund, and the Libraries. He was central to the reinvigoration of the UWM Retirees Association. Bruce only arrived at Parkersburg High for his senior year, but he built such a reputation as an academic super-star there that teachers still remembered him when his sister arrived there in the early 1960s. In his one year at Parkersburg, Bruce played cello in the school orchestra and excelled at speech and debate.

As the first grandchild of Julius and Lena Fish Freedman, Bruce was the recipient of their family lore and stories about the pogroms and deprivations that prompted Julius and Lena's parents to move their families to America in the early 1900s. Exploring his grandfather's family stories about the family's Diaspora heritage became something of a lifelong quest, involving a passion for history, travel, maps, languages, genealogy, and eventually DNA. One family tale was disproven by DNA: the family is not Sephardic, despite his grandfather saying he was "the tenth generation from Spain." One thing the DNA pursuit accomplished was to expand Bruce's collection of cousins. If there was a DNA connection, albeit 800 years ago or more, Bruce claimed that cousin. If someone was a "shirt-tail cousin" eight times removed, Bruce included them as cousins.

He is survived by his son, David (Sarah), his sister, Maureen (Robert), and four grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Henry Fetter and Sylvia Levine, partner Anna Verena Fjermestad, and daughter Emmanuelle Fetter. Burial took place at Mound Zion Cemetery. Suminski / Weiss LifeStory Funeral Home 414-276-5122

Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 14, 2017