Costigan, Giovanni Marie Denis George (1905-1990)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 4/27/2021
  • Essay 21221
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History professor and author, peace activist and humanitarian, Giovanni Costigan taught at the University of Washington for 41 years and was professor emeritus there for 15 more. Passionate about liberal social causes, he spoke out often and fearlessly about some of the most divisive issues of his day -- the anti-communism purges of the 1950s, U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s, and the crisis in Central America in the 1980s, to name a few. A specialist in English and Irish history, he became one of the most beloved and celebrated personalities on the UW campus, inspiring generations of students to think independently and have the courage of their convictions. His 1971 live debate with conservative author William F. Buckley drew some 10,000 spectators and was covered as front-page news by the local papers. Costigan was born in 1905 in Kingston-on-Thames, England, attended Oxford University, and received his doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin. He spent several years teaching at Idaho State University where he met and married Amne Johnson. The couple moved to Seattle in 1934 when Costigan joined the UW History Department, where he remained until his death in 1990 at the age of 85.

Irish Roots

Giovanni Marie Denis George Costigan was born on February 15, 1905, in Kingston-on-Thames, England, the youngest of three children. His parents were Irish and it was considered a "mixed marriage" -- his father was Catholic and his mother was Protestant. At the age of seven he began attending a boarding school in Sussex but was miserable in the school's austere environment. A precocious student, he completed the equivalent of a high-school degree by the age of 13 but, too young for university, he continued for another four years.

His father died when Costigan was 11. With only one parent, he and his siblings experienced a lot of freedom growing up. Restless as a teenager, he discovered the delights of cycling, an activity he enjoyed for the rest of his life. By his own estimation, during five years while a teenager he rode between 20,000 and 30,000 miles on a heavy, single-geared bike, visiting every county in England and Ireland, as well as touring northern France. He also spent a lot of time reading. "Books were my companions. I had no friends or playmates at all" ("Giovanni Costigan: The Passions ...").

His application to Oxford was denied initially because of his small size (as an adult, he was only 5'5" and weighed about 135 pounds). He was later admitted to the university's St. John's College and graduated in 1926 with a degree in history.

Arriving in America

Costigan left for America around 1927. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1930 and taught at the University of Idaho (now Idaho State University) in Pocatello for several years. On December 20, 1930, he married Amne Johnson (1907-1995), whom he had met in Pocatello. She was a teacher, as well.

In 1934 Costigan applied for an opening as assistant professor of history at the University of Washington and was hired from among 80 applicants. The position paid $2,278 a year, along with $35 for travel expenses. In 1943 he became the 97th UW faculty member to serve in World War II, accepting a commission as a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. In the decade after the war, he took several leaves of absence to advance his scholarship. In 1956 he studied Anglo-Irish relations, and in 1957 spent a year visiting Africa, Asia, and Israel. In the 1960s Costigan offered telecourses on KING-TV that were broadcast on Sunday nights for many years. Although his specialty was Irish and English history, his interests were wide-ranging and his public lectures covered such diverse topics as "Law and Freedom," "Human Rights in the Scientific Era," and "The Arab-Israel Problem."

Outstanding Teacher

Costigan's classes were incredibly popular, with students lining up to get into his lectures and lurking around the classroom door waiting for him to appear after class as if he were a rock star. "He seldom walked alone. He would stroll down the steps of Parrington Hall surrounded by a mob of students, straining to hear every syllable" ("Frederick's Ready to Celebrate …"). He often invited students to his home, where the conversation was spirited. For 50 years, he walked or rode his bike to campus from his University District home.

Costigan's oratorical skills, both inside and outside the classroom, were legendary, and he was renowned for his love of learning, his clarity of thought, and his commitment to a high moral compass. "Costigan could move a crowd with his scholarly eloquence. Just as easily, this small, dignified, white-haired man could slide off his bicycle and join students for a chat on a campus lawn. The world was his classroom" ("A Professor to Remember").

Long-time newspaper columnist Jean Godden (b. 1931) once told the story of how she tried to sign up for a class on Irish history taught by Costigan. "Fat chance. There were 300 on the waiting list. That's how popular the University of Washington history professor was" ("Art Patron Sculpturizes Kirkland"). U.S. Senator Brock Adams (1927-2004) took three classes with Costigan, later admitting he was "the major reason I decided to go to law school" (Giovanni Costigan: The Passions …").

His soft accent, the cadence and timbre of his voice, the precision of his words: Many considered Costigan's public addresses and classroom lectures to be akin to poetry. In fact, when Theodore Roethke, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was a lecturer at the UW, was unable to teach for an extended period of time, Costigan was asked by the English department to take over Roethke's poetry class. "Costigan wove the facts of history into a tapestry that came alive," said [former student Michael] Moore, inspiring him to pursue his own studies. "Giovanni Costigan got my soul out of bed, as I'm sure he did for countless others" ("Hundreds Gather ...").

Costigan remained on the UW faculty until 1975, when he reached the state's mandatory retirement age of 70. The news of his retirement was met with incredulity, even anger, on campus and throughout the state. "A public outcry was heard. The debate lasted for months -- in the press, on television, and in the Legislature as the public was compelled to consider the issue of forced retirement. Although officially retired since 1975, he maintains an office at the university, where he continues to do research, teach, write, and make himself available to any student who requests his time" (Giovanni Costigan: Above All Else"). In 1977, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill, nicknamed the "Costigan bill," that allowed professors under certain circumstances to teach beyond the mandatory retirement age. Costigan went on to serve as professor emeritus for the next 15 years, until his death in 1990.

Unflagging Courage

Costigan took up many issues and causes during his lifetime. He was a champion for the poor, the exploited, those besieged by war or overwhelmed by political upheaval. "Down through the years, again and again, Dr. Costigan continued to speak out. Gently, but with devastating effectiveness, he went against the tide of public opinion whipped up by anti-communist demagoguery in the 1950s. Later he would speak out against the Vietnam War, many aspects of the Cold War itself and, more recently, our misadventures in Central America ... When organized hate mail came in, this courtly respecter of civilized debate answered each letter in his careful, tiny handwriting ... He was never inoffensive, because bred in his bones was the urge to attack, attack and attack again, wherever he perceived injustice. Giovanni left no doubts -- his enemies always knew their man" ("Giovanni Costigan, A Poet with Outrage").

In 1948 Costigan was subpoenaed to appear before the Canwell Committee, the state's equivalent of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, for remarks he made in 1939 when introducing Harold Laski (1893-1950), a Marxist economist, at an event at the Moore Theater. Evidently the committee was satisfied with his answers; he was not called to testify further.

During the Reagan era, he was asked to be the keynote speaker at the King County Bar Association's annual dinner. The judges, lawyers, government officials, and other dignitaries attending the dinner listened to Costigan for 45 minutes as he criticized the Reagan administration for crimes committed in El Salvador and approved by the White House. "Giovanni concluded by saying, 'I am sorry to have brought you such a terrible message,' and then he sat down. The place erupted in a protracted, cheering, standing ovation; once again, he had the courage to take his views off campus and place them in a public arena, where he won them over" ("Giovanni Costigan, A Poet with Outrage").

In 1988 Costigan spoke to 200 activists who had gathered to protest President Reagan's decision to send troops to Honduras. Cheers rang out when the crowd heard him characterize the administration's conduct as "lie upon lie upon lie upon lie upon lie"("From Seattle to Tallahassee ..."). 

"That Red Rat"

In an article in the UW Daily in which he discussed a smear campaign against him during the 1960s, Costigan explained: "I am represented as being unfit to teach history. I should indeed be so were I so unhistorical as to be impelled by fear and hatred to make crude black-and-white judgments about complex public issues" (Paul Andrews, "Giovanni Costigan").

Called unpatriotic, a tool of Moscow, even a Red rat, Costigan rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. "One radio station owner decreed: 'Never mention that bastard's name on the air'" ("Giovanni Costigan, A Poet with Outrage"). His public denunciations did not come without a price, and he was under FBI surveillance for years. When he obtained a copy of his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, it was said to be two inches thick. He received death threats, hate mail, and frightening phone calls, often in the middle of the night. Although he tried to make light of it, there were times he feared for his life.

Costigan vs. Buckley

One of the most memorable episodes of Costigan's long academic career was a sold-out debate on foreign policy with well-known conservative author William F. Buckley (1925-2008), held on November 11, 1971, at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the UW campus. The event, which landed on the front-page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was covered blow-by-blow, as if it were a heavyweight title bout. A live audience, estimated between 8,000 and 10,000 people, watched the two men trade jabs on such topics as the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, China, Russia, and the atomic bomb. 

Eloquent and fearless, Costigan argued his points succinctly and assertively. In this "feast of the English language ... Costigan was sarcastic, knowledgeable -- electric. Buckley, over-publicized, never came to grips with him, jabbing with an occasional insult but missing with his haymakers ... The crowd, perhaps the largest ever to witness a public debate, came full of anticipation for a sharp conflict. Partisans for both conservative and liberal points of view were among them" ("Costigan Upstages Buckley ...").

The debate went on for two and a half hours and was the topic of conversation around town for months. The consensus was that Costigan was the winner. The professor thought so too, for he later remarked: "Perhaps those who are too young do not remember how many helpless victims my opponent has hounded and persecuted throughout the years. I felt a modest demolition job was called for" ("Remembering a Model Humanist").

Admired and Respected

Costigan was a gifted speaker and author -- his publications included a biography of Freud and a history of Ireland -- but he always thought of himself as a teacher. Although it was said he could memorize the names of more than 100 students from the seating chart by the second day of class, he knew his own shortcomings. When asked a question, he would sometimes respond, "I'm afraid I don't know enough about that to comment" ("Ignorance, Weakness …"). 

In 1970 Costigan received the UW's first Distinguished Teaching Award, presented by the alumni association, which carried great weight for him. "He has inspired scores of students from several generations, imbuing them with his sense of commitment to the highest moral and ethical ideals. He will leave a legacy and live on in the hearts and minds of every person he has touched. When he is asked what he'd like said or written about himself, he never mentions his credentials or his many writings and awards. He replies, 'Please just tell them that I am a teacher'" ("Giovanni Costigan: Above All Else …").

He was also honored with humanitarian awards from B'nai B'rith, the Humanist Society, and the American Civil Liberties Union, and was chosen to be part of the state's Centennial Hall of Fame. In 1985, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) declared February 15 to be Giovanni Costigan Day.

Costigan was lecturing aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, accompanied by his wife, when he suffered a fatal heart attack on March 24, 1990, at the age of 85. He was taken ashore in Spain and his body flown to Seattle. More than 400 students, colleagues, and friends attended the memorial service on May 1, 1990, in Kane Hall. The program, sponsored by the UW Department of History, included remarks by Bess Brunton of the Central American Peace Initiative; Jerry Bacharach, chairperson, UW Department of History; Michael Moore, professor, Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C.; Edgar Samuels, professor, Lester Pearson College, Victoria, B.C.; and others. After a moving performance of a classical piece played by a UW string quartet, "there was an extended silence, then a slight stirring in the crowd, but no applause. It was a moment of reverence for a man much loved"("400 Bid a Final Farewell").

After his wife Amne died in 1995, friends, colleagues, and former students raised funds to create the Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professorship in History at the University of Washington. Additional programs at the University honoring Costigan's memory support graduate-student scholarships in European history and students who participate in exchange programs at British or Irish universities.


Barbara F. Dority, "Giovanni Costigan: Above All Else, A Superlative Teacher," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1987, p. A-13; Paul Andrews, "Giovanni Costigan," Pacific Magazine, Ibid., August 28, 1988, p. 5; "A Professor to Remember – Costigan: He Made the World his Classroom," Editorial, Ibid., March 29, 1990, p. A-16; Paul Andrews, "Giovanni Costigan: The Passions and Headlines of An Era," Ibid., March 29, 1990, p. B-1; Emmett Watson, "Giovanni Costigan, A Poet with Outrage," Ibid., April 1, 1990, p. B-1; Joanne Plank, "Hundreds Gather at UW to Honor Costigan," Ibid., May 2, 1990, p. F-2; Jean Godden, "Art Patron Sculpturizes Kirkland," Ibid., October 9, 1996, p. B-1; Dale Turner, "Ignorance, Weakness Can Become Sources of Powerful Wisdom," Ibid., March 27, 2004, p. B-5; Barbara Dority, "Remembering a Model Humanist," Ibid., January 13, 2007 (; "Anti-Red Film Critic Gets Calls," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 10, 1961, p. 26; Shelby Scates, "Costigan Upstages Buckley in Debate," Ibid., November 12, 1971, p. A-1; "From Seattle To Tallahassee The Protests Go On," Ibid., March 19, 1988, p. A-4; "Giovanni Costigan," Editorial, Ibid., March 30, 1990, p. A-14; Jean Godden, "Frederick's Ready to Celebrate its 100th This Week," Ibid., April 2, 1990, p. B-1;  John Hessburg, "400 Bid a Final Farewell to UW's Costigan," Ibid., May 2, 1990, p. B-1; Steve Jaech, "Our Region's Giants are Short on Ego," The News Tribune, August 7, 2016 (;  Class Acts, Columns, University of Washington Alumni Magazine, September 1999 (; Arther Ferrill, "In Memoriam: Giovanni Costigan," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association website accessed April 8, 2021 (

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