In Memoriam: John A. Larkin (1936-2021)

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of our friend, colleague, and mentor of Philippine and Southeast Asia history, John A. Larkin, who left us on July 29, 2021 after a long struggle against Parkinson’s disease on what was his 85th birthday. Known to all simply as “Jack,” his contribution to Philippine social-economic history and local historical studies was profound and long lasting. While at Yale, Jack studied under the preeminent scholar of Indonesia and Southeast Asia, Harry J. Benda. Immediately after earning his Ph.D. in 1966 he began his long career at the University of Buffalo, where he stayed until his retirement as emeritus in 2005.

Larkin’s first major publications included the critical “The Place of Local History in Philippine Historiography” in the Journal of Southeast Asian History in 1967. In the same year he co-edited The World of Southeast Asia with Harry Benda, which introduced critically edited documentary readings to new generations of students. A few years later his revised and expanded dissertation appeared as The Pampangans: Colonial Society in a Philippine Province (1972). The book had a profound impact on Philippine historical studies that had previously focused on the country’s metropolitan and nationalist elites. While those elites remained important, they were joined by legions of local semi-autonomous historical actors, as seemingly overnight local history monographs and edited volumes mushroomed and even provincial historical institutes were founded. Still later, Larkin produced a rich comparative local history of the greater impact of sugar industry in Pampanga and Laguna, Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society, in 2001.

Larkin returned frequently to the Philippines and in 1979 he also enjoyed a year at the Universiti Malaya. In the Association for Asian Studies, he is remembered for his work with the Philippine Studies Group (PSG), where he acted as chair for a three year term, as well as an articles and a book review editor for the PSG’s Pilipinas: A Journal of Philippine Studies. In 1996 he was awarded the Group’s Grant Goodman Prize in Philippine History. He also served a term as the book review editor for the Journal of Asian Studies and for many years was on the prize committee for the AAS’s prestigious Harry J. Benda Award. Of all his grants and awards probably his most meaningful came in 2012, when he was honored with the Juan D. Nepomuceno Cultural Award for Outstanding Contributions to Kapampangan Research and Scholarship. Since then, a Kapampangan library and research center was named in his honor at Holy Angel Academy in Angeles City, Pampanga.

He is survived by his loving wife, Janet, and three children from a previous marriage—Sean, Sara Larkin-Rosenstock, and Emma Larkin-Mosley—and five grandchildren. He continued a rigorous running regime until he was no longer capable of maintaining the pace that had taken him to numerous long-distance races.

Paul A. Rodell, Professor of History (Emeritus)
Georgia Southern Universit

Farewell and Peace, Dear Friend

In 1968, I heard about an American historian working on the provincial history of Pampanga when I returned to Diliman after a lengthy sojourn. Jack’s field-work would eventually produce his signature contribution to Philippine historiography, more significantly, to Philippine local history—his groundbreaking The Pampangans: Colonial Society in a Philippine Province. The book also blazed the trail towards a “Filipino-centric” approach to Philippine history from a socio-economic perspective unlike the political/national approach of many earlier studies. As a Yale graduate Jack studied under the prominent Southeast Asianist historian Harry Benda, which helps explain the kind of history he was inclined to work on.

I always met with Jack on his various trips to the Philippines and in 1991-1992 he and his wife Janet were near neighbors in UP Village in the Diliman area of Quezon City. We also connected as Filipinistas through the Philippine Studies Group of AAS, where he served as executive secretary from 1998-2001, and the Grant Goodman Award Committee from 1996-1997, and we worked together on the journal Pilipinas from 1996 to 2001.

Jack also attended many international conferences I convened, such as the conference on the “Centennial of the 1896 Revolution,” the Manila meeting of the International Association of Historians of Asia in 1983, and in various Philippine and foreign venues of the International Philippine Studies Conferences. In other words, Jack participated actively and faithfully in practically all academic events which involved the Philippines. Sadly, I too clearly remember when he told me that he would no longer be able to come to AAS anymore because of his deteriorating health.

In my classes on Philippine history and historiography, I always assigned his articles from the American Historical Review, The Journal of Southeast Asian History (1967), and the Journal of Asian Studies (1971), as well as his edited Yale Southeast Asian Studies monograph, Perspectives on Philippine Historiography: A Symposium (1979).

Jack, you will be forever remembered for your devotion to Philippine history, especially local history—you will be in our hearts forever. I will also remember you as my daughter did, then a youngster when you visited as a house guest—she referred to you as my “noisy friend” because you had a “booming” voice and a most hearty laughter!

Bernardita (Nita) Reyes Churchill
Professor of History (Retired), University of the Philippines

Farewell to a Friend and Mentor

A giver of good advice, had John “Jack” Larkin been able to offer counsel about this testimonial, he’d have advised me to work on the opening sentence.

The son of a medical doctor, he grew up during the Depression and the Second World War in the rural Hudson Valley. Years later he retained memories of his father accepting farm products in exchange for the provision of medical care.

Recipient of a boarding school education, a lonely time which failed to satisfy Jack’s outgoing nature, he retained some of his fondest memories of a later time spent in New York in early 1960s. There, as a graduate student at NYU, he developed an attachment to baseball and the upstart Mets. He never forgot the lineup of the 1969 World Series team and recalled all but forgotten stars such as St. Louis Browns starter Ned Garver, remembered for a “cerebral approach to pitching, control, and superior command of breaking balls.”

Equal parts serious scholar and lover of life, in the classroom Jack proved to be a popular teacher. With students, praise might be given sparsely, but his support remained constant.

An opponent of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, his classes and seminars at the University of Buffalo about the war were always full. Though he did not seek attention, when a graduate assistant commented on the animated class response to an engrossing lecture, he basked in the afterglow, remarking how he had “nailed it.” English classes at Yale showed him how literature could inform a student’s understanding of the past, and his seminars on the war always included the work of writers such as Graham Greene.

Unflappable, he remained calm when a large lecture class in the late 1980s, which included scholars from Vietnam, excited protest and required the presence of campus security officers. In addition to including the views of the Vietnamese, Jack’s classroom guests included combat veterans and prominent opponents of the war, such as Don Luce. When the Cambodian-Filipino sons of Sokham and Christine Hing came to study at the University of Buffalo—Sokham having perished in Tuol Sleng—Jack made a point of befriending them.

Jack had a penchant for making non-academics comfortable, while in the classroom he showed a proclivity for provocative interrogations. “The secret to good teaching,” he liked to say, “was good questions.”

Slowed in retirement by medical troubles, he applied himself to fighting ill-health with the same uncomplaining determination that he brought to scholarly undertakings. Drawing inspiration from his friend, Skip, a Marine veteran of Korea’s fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, the pair ran, jogged and later, in a concession to age, walked together. The rigorous regimen enabled Jack to ward off the insidious effects of Parkinson’s, just as the grit, smarts, and devotion of his spouse and fellow scholar, Dr. Janet Larkin, ensured that he always had the best of care.

Almost to the end, Jack enjoyed the blessings of life—adult beverages, a delectable meal, followed by a tasty dessert, engrossing conversation along with a good read. Besides such pleasures, he found new interests, ranging from a first-ever trip to the Gettysburg battlefield with his former students, or nurturing old loves, such as baseball excursions to Cleveland and seeing the New York Mets affiliate play in Buffalo. And there was the constant company of his wife.

Departing the world on his eighty-fifth birthday, he joins his mentors and friends who preceded him—fellow Asianists Harry Benda, Grant Goodman, and Ed Wickberg.

Thomas Grace

Jack Larkin and Philippine Society

The practice of social history meant something specific to Jack Larkin. His was a totalizing approach, devoted to working out the place of given groups and regions, however marginal others might consider them, in the history of Philippine society in its fullness. The title of Jack’s 1993 Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society was originally meant to be its subtitle. Its original intended title? Legacy. The lasting influence on Jack of Harry Benda was clear.

Jack’s mentor had an interest in rural unrest in Southeast Asia. But in Jack’s work that interest became a tool for understanding fundamental social structures and cultural complexes in Central Luzon and the Western Visayas. Rebellion joined population pressure and frontier dynamics, social distance between elites and subalterns, and patterns of regional- and provincial-level change as staples of Jack’s totalizing approach to Philippine social history. He forged this approach in an engagement with Pampanga Province—dating to 1963-1964—that remains remarkable for its intensity. Noteworthy in that engagement was Jack’s lasting appreciation, and acknowledgement, of the work of Filipino “local historians.”

Humanity joined intensity in informing Jack’s work. Social history was not a “bloodless” undertaking. An English major and thespian in Yale College, Jack brought flair and elegance to his scholarship. Consider the chapter titles in The Pampangans and Sugar and the Origins: “At the Turn of the Century,” “From Datus Descended,” “The Belt of Fire,” “The Mind of Sugarlandia.” Ponder the sensibility that marked his perceptive, deeply researched 1978 chapter on “The Capampangan Zarzuela: Theater for a Provincial Elite.”

What the fate of Pampanga’s elite meant for the future of the province, of the Philippines, and of their people mattered to Jack. Even fifty years ago he noted the suburbanization of Pampanga’s southern reaches, the fading sense of the past among leading provincial families following their transfer to Manila, the rise of a new commercial class in the environs of Clark Air Base in Angeles—and the social distance that continued to separate the people of Pampanga’s barrios from those who might make possible a better future for them.

Today, that base has become Clark International Airport. In nearby Kapampangan-speaking towns of Tarlac Province, New Clark City is rising within a “special economic zone” extending into Pampanga. And Pampanga boasts a well-regarded university. Jack would surely hope that Holy Angel University’s decision to name the library of its Center for Kapampangan Studies in his honor reflects that institution’s commitment to giving the granddaughters and grandsons of Pampanga’s former “barrio folk” the opportunity to build better futures for themselves.

Michael Montesano, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Remembering John Larkin

My knowledge and appreciation of Jack comes from valuing him as an academic colleague, innovative scholar, and close friend for many years. We also both worked on local and social history (Pampanga for Jack, Kuching for me) as an approach to get beyond national and imperial mindsets in the study of Southeast Asian history. Indeed, Jack’s work helped inspire a new generation of Filipino and Western scholars of the Philippines who emulated and expanded his model. Back in the early 1970s Jack took a leave from SUNY-Buffalo to begin work on a new book, and I (a Malaysianist) was hired as a visiting professor to replace him for the 1973-1974 academic year and teach his Southeast Asia courses. Actually, nobody could replace Jack—he was too unique and a spirited and entertaining teacher. During that year, while I labored in the trenches, Jack remained in Buffalo to research and write, renting an office downtown in order not to be distracted by campus life. My wife Kathy and I rented an apartment very near the house where Jack and his then wife, Judy, resided, so we saw them often. The outgoing and unpretentious Jack proved to be a delightful and witty conversationalist, never reluctant to express his views. I always looked forward to our conversations and get-togethers.

The highlight of the year was the visit to Buffalo of the exiled former Burmese Prime Minister, U Nu, and his son as part of a lecture tour around the U.S. The conditions of the tour forbid U Nu from openly discussing Burmese or Asian politics, restricting him to Buddhist topics. During U Nu’s stay in Buffalo, I served as a chaperone and guide. Jack enjoyed having dinner guests and volunteered to host a small dinner gathering at their home for the Burmese leader. U Nu was a genial guest and took a Buddhist view of the impermanence of things, but he surely must have, in his mind, compared the modest gathering to the grand official banquets he had once enjoyed with Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, and other world luminaries. Ever gregarious, Jack tried to draw out U Nu on his views of Burmese and world politics, but the polite statesman was cautious in his responses. Although he couldn’t fully penetrate U Nu’s enigmatic persona, Jack was perfectly comfortable among both Southeast Asian and American VIPs and academics as well as the ordinary people he often studied and befriended. Friends, colleagues, and former students around the world mourn his passing.

Craig Lockard, Rosenberg Professor of History (Emeritus)
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Farewell to a Friend

I first met Jack Larkin in the summer of 1973 thanks to a lunch invitation from Oscar Evangelista of the University of the Philippines (UP) department of history, who was meeting his friend from Buffalo. Oscar offered me lunch and being a hungry graduate student in UP’s Asian Center, I gladly accepted although I didn’t know who “Jack” was. The two friends talked and joked while I ate everything on my plate. When they noticed me, Oscar suggested that I give Jack an article on Philippine revolutionary Zarzuelas I recently published in Asian Studies, an Asian Center journal. Later, he told me who Jack was and why his recent book on Pampanga was revolutionizing Philippine historiography.

I sent John Larkin my article and read his book. Before enrolling at UP, I had been a Peace Corps volunteer working in agriculture extension with poor farmers and the Pinatubo Aeta of Zambales province. Jack’s history from the perspective of a province in Central Luzon was a revelation, but it also made complete sense to me that Philippine history should also come from the perspective of the people and local level that I knew as a volunteer, not just the national issues of Manila-based elites. I immediately applied to the University of Buffalo’s PhD program in history.

Jack was a tough taskmaster but he allowed me to follow my own path while offering guidance and keeping me on course and correcting errors. He allowed me to enter his life, and I got to know his family and ran with him and his running buddy, Skip. He was also personally generous when my wife died of cancer. His kindness knew no limits.

Jack was not shy about sharing his highs and lows. An especial high was the publication of his article “Philippine History Reconsidered: A Socioeconomic Perspective,” as the lead article in the June 1982 American Historical Review. Not only was this the AHR‘s first article about the Philippines, it had earlier been rejected for inclusion in a Philippine book on local history. Jack felt supremely vindicated, and rightfully so. An accolade that may have meant even more to him was the 2012 Juan D. Nepomuceno award for his contributions to Kapampangan studies and the naming of Holy Angle University’s academic library in Angeles City, Pampanga in his honor.

Over the years we maintained contact and I made as many return visits to western New York as I could. Though I had friends from my graduate school days there, Jack was the real reason I returned. I will continue to see my old friends, but I will ache for not being able to visit Jack in his retirement home in Orchard Park.

Paul A. Rodell, Professor of History (Emeritus)
Georgia Southern University