Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Remembering Rhys

I first met Rhys in 1999, at the Institute’s retirement dinner for another history hero, John Selby. Rhys paid tribute to John by posing as Landon Carter with a brilliant Southern/Australian accent. Standing behind the podium with a nightcap perched on his head, Rhys somehow reminded Institute IT guru Kim Foley and me of Sean Connery dressed as a leprechaun. It is no surprise that a scholar who studied performance would be such a master of it. If Landon Carter had been half as hilarious as he appeared that night, we would all be knee-deep in his diary.

I was exceedingly lucky to count Rhys as a neighbor, a professor, and a colleague. During his sojourns in Williamsburg, he lived in a tiny reconstructed colonial house a couple of blocks from mine and was one of the most cheerful Williamsburgers of all. In 2002, he graciously allowed me to unofficially audit his public history class at William and Mary as a pseudo-grad student. It was hands-down one of the best classes I’ve ever taken, thanks to Professor Isaac’s fantastic blend of ingenuity and wit. It’s no coincidence that I am now working on a Ph.D. in public history.

When The Patriot came out in 2000, I was set to review it for Uncommon Sense. Rhys called to let me know that he’d been asked to write a review but didn’t want to replace mine. It was incredibly thoughtful. We each wrote a review, his much more entertaining and insightful, but I was happy to be on the same page. Soon after, he stopped by my desk at the Institute to ask a couple of questions about JSTOR. I showed him how to log in, and he signed my used, book-sale copy of The Transformation of Virginia with “for Becky, with high regard and esteem.” Esteem and regard for logging onto a database? I was thrilled. At the time I was surprised that a Pulitzer Prize winner would insist on addressing everyone—even those of us working in a basement so humid that it had its own weather system—as a colleague. Over the next ten years of conferences, Colonial Williamsburg functions, and Institute shindigs, I learned it was completely normal Rhys behavior. Most memorably, Rhys was exceptionally enthusiastic and energetic, not just about history, but about everything. If enthusergetic were a word, Rhys would define it. His excitement for his subject and for life in general made it a privilege to know him.

Rebecca Wrenn,
University of California, Riverside