Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


In Memoriam: Alfred F. Young

Al was hugely important to my own development, from when he first noticed me in 1973 onwards. We all stood in his shadow one way or another. He was a scholar, a gentleman, and a total mensch.

I remember visiting Al in Chicago when Harold Washington was mayor, and his enthusiasm about that was intense. I hope he got the chance to vote before November 6. That he would be delighted need not be said. That he would take note of what happened in Ohio brings to mind his own efforts, of which he told me, to convince his friend George McGovern to reach out to the people Obama did reach with the auto rescue. That he would think the millennium had arrived—don’t be silly. But that the coincidence speaks to all that Al did in his life, as scholar, teacher, mentor, friend, and citizen is entirely fitting.

He stayed creative. Early in my knowing him, when I was working on crowds and uprisings, he commented on ritual cross-dressing among New Jersey rioters, calling it “kooky.” Nobody would have predicted that he would be the sensitive, thorough author of the Deborah Sampson biography. He knew that the book in some sense reflected modern gender politics and issues, but it was no tract for our times. It was a great, creative study of a woman in her own time, telling how understanding her also meant understanding her time.

But he also could be great fun. We all have our Al stories. Let me share two. One stems from a conference in Milan. When it was over he and I went up to Como to ride the boat a ways. It was a warm, no, hot Italian summer day and I was lightly dressed. I got to his hotel and he immediately started pressing me. Did I have an umbrella? (No.) A raincoat? (No, again.) Maybe he could loan me a sweater. Then he realized what he was doing, smiled the Al smile and said, “You know, I have three daughters and somehow they survived this.”

The other story also bears on daughters, or step-daughters. I stopped in Chicago to see him in 1991, when I was still in England, on my way to an OAH. I had orders from my spouse and step-daughters in Britain to bring back makeup and lingerie. I’d done such shopping on previous trips and knew the items and the sizes. So Al took me to one of the big Loop stores. We walked into the bra section and he simply gaped at the display. When we got to Oak Park, Marilyn arrived and asked what was in the bags. I answered and Mally wondered how I had gotten them. I explained. Her response: “You took Al in there?”

I’ll miss him greatly.

Ed Countryman, Southern Methodist University