When Gerald Gamm, then a Harvard Ph.D. candidate considering his professor opportunities, flew into Rochester on a snowy day, he was surprised to find Richard Fenno waiting for him.
Fenno was a UR professor and scholar of congress whose esteem was rivaled only by Woodrow Wilson.
But on that day, he was Gamm’s chaperone. He drove Gamm to the hotel.
Fenno, who was vital to the development of UR’s political science department as one of the field’s best in the nation, died at the age of 93 on April 21, from what was deemed a likely case of COVID-19.
Gamm, now the director of undergraduate studies for the political science department, said it was that welcoming personality that set Fenno apart.
“Dick’s door was always wide open, and much of the time when you walked past his office, he’d just be sitting there whistling,” Gamm said. Fenno always was eager to drop whatever he was working on and make time to talk with anyone walking by his door, as if that person was the most important. “Dick never once looked like he was rushing to get somewhere,” Gamm said. “Dick never once checked his watch.”
Fenno and his wife Nancy Fenno were childhood sweethearts from Winchester, MA, and they spent their summers in Truro on Cape Cod. “It’s so hard for me to imagine the two of them apart. I cry when I imagine the two of them apart now,” Gamm said, remembering a time when he visited them in Truro. They refused to let Gamm help with the dishes, insisting that he rest while they did them together.
Of the 19 books Fenno wrote over the course of his half century-long career, his most famous was “Home Style: House Members in their Districts,” written in 1978. The book took the study of Congress out of Washington and into the home districts of legislators. Even more revolutionary was that instead of using formal theory or traditional data sets, Fenno gained his insights from traveling with legislators, a strategy which became known as “soaking and poking.” According to Gamm, the fact that members of Congress were willing to allow him to travel with them was a testament to his personality.
Fenno’s 1966 book “The Power of the Purse: Appropriations Politics in Congress” was the culmination of an era in which the field focused on sociological studies of the committee system of Congress by focusing on the House Appropriations committee.
His 1973 book “Congressmen in Committees” reinvented the study of Congress by investigating one member of committees at a time instead of the committee as a whole. Drawing on positive political theory, formal modeling of rational political actors that was pioneered by others in the department, he explained actions of congressmen based on possible motivations: to secure re-election, to seek leadership posts within Congress, or to enact their view of good public policy.
“Home Style” won the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Woodrow Wilson Award for the best book in political science. From 1984 to 1985, he chaired the association. He is now the namesake of an APSA prize for the best book on legislative studies.
His name lives on in a lot of other ways, including the Richard F. Fenno Jr. Seminar Room in Harkness Hall, the Richard and Nancy Fenno Summer Fellowships for UR undergraduates who pursue summer internships relating to policy and politics, and the APSA’s Prestage-Fenno Fund promoting minority students contemplating advanced training in political science. Fenno also developed UR’s Washington Semester program which gives students the opportunity to “study abroad” in the nation’s capital.
Despite several times being offered jobs by some of the most prestigious institutions, Fenno stayed at UR his entire career, building the department’s reputation along with fellow professor Bill Riker.
Fenno trained a cohort of Congress scholars at Rochester. “When they come back for his 70th birthday, there are like 30 of them, all of them tenured professors at top universities in the country,” Gamm remembered, later guessing that 30-40 percent of the top scholars of Congress in the country got their Ph.D. at UR.
To Gamm, the Fennos were like surrogate parents, always making him feel at home.
“They were very very generous and very warm and very open and very welcoming,” Gamm said. “As a consequence, I think a lot of people are really missing him right now.”