VAN TASSEL, DAVID D. (29 March 1928 -3 June 2000) was the founder of HISTORY DAY and senior editor of The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Van Tassel was born in Binghamton, New York, to Etta May Strathie Van Tassel and Dr. Walter Raymond Van Tassel. He studied at Cherry Lawn School in Darien, Connecticut, and received his B.A. in 1950 from Dartmouth. He went on to the University of Wisconsin where he studied with Merle Curti and received his doctorate in history in 1955. His dissertation on the evolution of historical societies and the historical profession in the United States was published in 1960 as Recording America's Past: An Interpretation of the Development of Historical Studies in America, 1607-1884. From 1961 to 1969 he taught at the University of Texas. He came to CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY as a visiting professor in 1968, and joined the history faculty at CWRU the following year. During his thirty years at CWRU, Van Tassel twice served as the chair of the history department for a total of ten years and held the Hiram C. Hayden and Elbert Jay Benton professorships. In 1978, he co-founded the Center on Aging and Health at the university.
To foster enthusiasm for historical research among secondary students, Van Tassel organized History Day at CWRU in 1974. The first History Day had 129 Cleveland-area contestants. The 21st annual national competition, held at the University of Maryland at College Park shortly after his death, was dedicated to his memory and was attended by 2112 students from all fifty states. They were the representatives of nearly 40,000 teachers and 700,000 students who had competed in local and state programs that year.
Van Tassel began work on his history of Cleveland at the suggestion of the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION in 1980. From early on Van Tassel decided to take an innovative approach and present the city's history in encyclopedic form. In 1981 he recruited a former student, John Grabowski, to serve as managing editor for the project. Indiana University Press published the first edition of the The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History in 1987. As the first modern encyclopedia of an American city it became the standard for other cities, including New York City and Indianapolis. A second edition was released along with a companion book, The Dictionary of Cleveland Biography, in 1996 to coincide with the city's bicentennial. In 1998 the encyclopedia became the first city encyclopedia to be posted on the World Wide Web.
In addition to his first book, Van Tassel edited or co-edited fifteen books, including Aging and the Elderly: Humanistic Perspectives in Gerontology (1978), Aging, Death and the Completion of Being (1979), and the Handbook of the Humanities and Aging (1992). In recognition of his work, the National Endowment of the Humanities presented him with the Charles Frankel Prize in 1990. In 1998, CWRU recognized his contributions by bestowing the Hovorka Prize, its highest academic honor, on him.
David Van Tassel married Helen Lidell in 1950. Together they had five children: D. Dirck (dec.), Emily Field, Katherine, Jonathan J., and Jeanie Swed. Van Tassel died in his home of heart failure. He was cremated and his remains interred in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.