Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Remembering Rhys

I was a graduate student when I first met Rhys. My supervisor Donna Merwick suggested I might go and discuss my interest in diaries with another diary scholar. Appointment duly made, I expected to go and sit at the feet of the eminent historian, and listen. Instead I sat on a chair, and while I did listen, I also talked: Rhys was as interested in learning of the nature of my research and intellectual endeavour as he was in sharing the insights of his own.

I now know this to have been one of the outstanding attributes of Rhys’s professional life: his intellectual generosity to all, irrespective of age or status. We have already heard many examples of that this afternoon. His generosity was a great gift, given willingly and openly and with humility. It marked his work too. If there was an intention behind Rhys’s giving, it came I think from a quest to build a more just, fairer world. He believed that the “candle of understanding” would make a difference. Hence his love of History. “History is the story we make from the stories we find,” he said. A master story teller, he believed that the stories we tell can change the way we act in the world.

Some years after my first meeting with Rhys I returned to La Trobe, this time as a colleague in the History department. He welcomed me warmly, and we shared many mutual interests—Rhys was always interested in the latest intellectual developments. But my friendship with Rhys developed very different dimensions when early in 2004 he came into my office and offered to help in any way he and Colleen could. Our oldest daughter had just begun school, our youngest kindergarten, and my partner and I were trying to juggle work and mid-afternoon school pick-ups. I was generally feeling rather stressed. I took up Rhys’s offer, and each Monday afternoon he and Colleen would pick up Rachel from school and Jess from kinder, take them home and entertain them until I could collect them later in the day. It was not just that the extra hours in my working day made a huge difference, Rhys and Colleen embraced the grandparent role to Rachel and Jess and developed a very special relationship with them. Rhys entered into their world, provided an audience for their performances and lovingly photographed their characters at play. He entertained them with stories from his own childhood, sent postcards when away from each place he visited, opening the world to them. “Rhysieboy” they called him. We shared holidays down at Blairgowrie, and he became their constant companion in the water and on the sand. He introduced them to sunset picnics on the beach (complete with gin and tonics for the adults), and inducted them into the world of sailing. I asked Rachel and Jess (now eleven and nine) what words they would use to describe Rhys. Their list captures the joy he brought to their lives, the spark he ignited: funny, kind, playful, inclusive, happy, chatty, “observational”, honest, loving, respectful, cheerful, fun, energetic. A sticker on the wall at the Isaac’s Blairgowrie holiday house read, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. Rhys embraced this philosophy with a passion, enriching beyond measure the lives of my family.

As Rhys’s relationship with our children flourished, so my friendship with him also grew. He provided support and counsel, but he also engaged readily and deeply with my work, reading drafts of everything I wrote, profoundly shaping my thinking and my writing. He knew how difficult the writing process could be. He believed in me when the task felt too hard, stoked the fire when its flame was fading, shared his deep knowledge and love of landscape history, and encouraged my journey along that path. I miss him greatly.

Our family spent last year in Dublin, and I was unable to get home before Rhys died. I have heard from many that though his health was failing, his passion still burned. He focused his energies, needing to conserve the resources he had, and determined to live as long as he could. His zest for life seemed unabated, his enthusiasm still infecting friends who called. And his mind still danced; just two days before he died he completed an article he had been writing, setting the record straight on a matter of great import in the history of Colonial Virginia.

His death has opened a gaping hole in the life of my family, and our community of historians is diminished by his passing. But he has left us an extraordinary legacy. Through his work, his teaching and his friendships, his passion burned, igniting the fire for others. Rhys once wrote of an encounter with students at an archaeological site in Colonial Williamsburg where they could see exposed the foundations of the old school house. Their guide had been telling them of the school master’s journal. As they moved away, he turned to the students: “Catch the spark!” and pointing to one, added: “He’s got the spark. Catch it from him! Unless we catch the spark and try to understand where we all come from, we're never going to get this troubled world right!”

Rhys truly lit the candle of understanding in the hearts of many. May it continue to illuminate our work, our lives and the worlds, past and present, that we know and love.

Katie Holmes, La Trobe University