Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Remembering Rhys

Rhys, as I’m sure many people can attest, counted among his many vocational enthusiasms a delight in mentoring junior scholars. Early on in a two-year fellowship (2005–2007) at the Omohundro Institute, one of Rhys’s several beloved scholarly homes, I eagerly introduced myself to him after a colloquium. Perhaps he recognized that we shared research interests; my fascination with early American political culture as well as my choice of Virginia as a case study undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the dynamite-like impact his Transformation of Virginia had on my sense in graduate school of where some of the most exciting veins of colonial American history lay. In any event he reached out to me as an intellectual fellow traveler, an extraordinarily generous act that I still count among the greatest pleasures of my time at the Institute.

I say intellectual fellow traveler because that was the sense of our friendship that Rhys himself generously imparted. One day, having carried our bag lunches to a picnic table near the Institute where we would sometimes meet for lunch, Rhys steered the discussion away from our usual talk of all things Virginia to an unexpected topic: office furniture. “Alec,” he said, “when you’re choosing furniture for your history department office, be sure to request a couch.” I must have looked puzzled, because he went on, his eyes glinting and his voice taking on that infectious tone of zeal that was distinctively Rhys’s. “A writer needs a couch because the brain can only do so much hard work before it needs a rest. I always request a couch, so I can take a nap between bursts of writing.” The charm of the advice lay in part, of course, in the thought of Rhys Isaac, Pulitzer Prize—winning historian, dozing away in his office. But what was equally thrilling was the way his advice acknowledged our mutual participation in a craft, our bond as fellow writers. I will remember Rhys fondly in many respects, undoubtedly with that image of him catching afternoon catnaps high on the list. But I will miss him especially as a friend and mentor.

Alexander Haskell,
University of California, Riverside