Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Remembering Rhys

The Department of Historical Research (as it was known when Rhys was here) at The Colonial Williamsburg foundation lost a good friend, much-respected colleague, and enthusiastic supporter with the death of Rhys Isaac.

The most veteran among us remember Rhys toiling away in the microfilm room upstairs in the Barrett House across from the Public Hospital, back when Dr. Edward Riley was Director of Research. A special friend of Dr. Riley’s successor, Dr. Cary Carson, Rhys spent a good deal of time among us in all of our subsequent departmental homes, and he always brought with him his distinctive hearty greetings and the light of his enthusiasm for Virginia history. We have fond memories of Rhys and Cary visiting in Cary’s office. Their collegial conversation, salted with laughter, could be heard throughout the department.

I vividly remember my first real encounter with Rhys. A couple of decades ago, John Barrows (formerly manager of music and dance at Colonial Williamsburg) and I performed a minuet for History Forum. I was apprehensive about doing it. As a young historian, I wanted to be taken “seriously” by the historians gathered there, and this didn’t seem to be the way to go about it. Afterwards, who should come bounding up to me but Rhys Isaac, whose Transformation of Virginia had taken the scholarly world by storm. “Extraordinary!” he kept saying. “How many historians can actually say that they have dressed in the garb of the eighteenth century and performed a dance central to the experience of men and women then? Extraordinary!” from then on, as he did with so many others before and after, he took a special interest in my projects and shared his with me. We exchanged e-mails, punctuated liberally with exclamation points, until a couple of weeks before his death.

Rhys had a special affinity for museum history. He regarded the museum not only as a podium for the teaching of good history but as a stage for performing it, much as the events of history had been “performed” when they first happened. No one understood eighteenth-century social life as a performance better than Rhys Isaac. And few appreciated the “set” of Colonial Williamsburg more than he did.

Rhys understood our character interpreters, who bring to life persons of the past in our Historic Area. He felt their passion for the people they portrayed, and he was always a willing mentor as they engaged in their research. He wasn’t above joining in: Rhys Isaac in a nightshirt and cap became Landon Carter, to his own great delight!

He was one of the most generous, encouraging, and engaging scholars of colonial Virginia. Our department was always a brighter place when he was in Williamsburg, and he will be sorely missed.

Cathy Hellier, for the Department of Training and
Historical Research at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation