Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Remembering Rhys

During my thirty-five years working at La Trobe, I accumulated a fund of good stories about Rhys. This is the best of them by far!

Noise of a helicopter, late afternoon, April 19, 1983—Revolution scholars, note the date! A scene reminiscent of Apocalypse Now—without the napalm.

A phone call—Donna Simpson, reinforced by Professor Scott, demanding that I produce Rhys Isaac forthwith. He was the reason for the circling helicopter. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize, and the national t.v. news channels were descending on the campus for an interview.

I said I would try to get Rhys, but unless he was teaching, I had no swift way of locating him. Fortunately he was with a class, so, asking the Vice-Chancellor to stall the invaders, I went to get him.

There was Rhys visible through the glass panel—holding forth with some of you doubtless there—and you will remember that I gestured to him to stop and come to the door. He simply smiled back beatifically, pleased no doubt that his chair had come to watch him perform.

I waved again, and he continued to smile, though less beatifically, as the realization grew that something was up. Indeed, his look turned to one of alarm, as his first thought, obviously, was that there was an emergency at home.

“What’s wrong?” he said cautiously. “Nothing,” I replied, “but you have to stop the class. You’ve just won the Pulitzer Prize!” Disbelief, then extreme irritation crossed his countenance. He thought I was sending him up and told me so in no uncertain terms.

Not until, as some of you may remember, I told his students directly that notwithstanding Rhys’s reaction, this was true and invited some them to view the scene unfolding in front of the building, did he realise this was not a misplaced April fools joke. It was real. The class cheered their teacher, as Rhys began to grin.

We must have looked an extremely odd couple indeed—me, so large, he so neat and trim, as we sauntered over to the awaiting reporters and their camera crews. I introduced Rhys to David Johnson and then moved out of the way, as his public life changed for ever. For me, it remains a wonderful memory and I am privileged indeed to share it today, to recall again the great honour that had come to Rhys and the manner of its coming, and the gracious and generous way in which he accepted it.

John Salmond, La Trobe University