Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


In Memoriam: Alfred F. Young

I learned many lessons from Al Young. There were the lessons about history and ordinary Americans, those came first, but soon those were surpassed by the many lessons he taught about collegiality, scholarly integrity, courage, humor, and compassion. He was a prince and a valued colleague at the Newberry Library for many years.

I first encountered Al in Dayton, Ohio, where he was a visiting lecturer and I was in the audience: a beginning assistant professor at nearby Antioch College. He lectured on the American Revolution but what I recall most vividly about that afternoon was his relaxed and self-confident manner. Nervous and self-conscious as most of us are at that stage in our careers, I couldn’t help but appreciate his passion for his subject (the ordinary people of the Revolution) and the care he took with questioners and those of us who wanted to engage him in extended conversation.

I wouldn’t have thought much about that first meeting if I hadn’t run into Al a few years later when I began working at the Newberry Library. Al was an old friend of Bill Towner, the Newberry’s president at the time and the man who had persuaded me to leave Ohio for Chicago. Al was a reader at the library, active in the Early American Seminar and serving regularly on the Newberry fellowship selection committee. The Newberry is a small place; Al was around and I saw him often. I discovered he was as friendly and collegial up close as he had been at the podium.

Until we disagreed about a fellowship application. We worked together for several years on the annual selection of fellows. Al was an outside reader and was not shy about his opinions. He announced clearly which projects he believed were the most innovative, promising, and imaginative. He was a fierce advocate of younger scholars and people who needed a leg up. He read the files carefully and gave candidates every opportunity to prove themselves. Al didn’t skim. I learned quickly that if you disagreed with Al you better have read the file as carefully as he had and you should be prepared to explain why your candidate was stronger than his. I also learned that he could change his mind. He argued, he insisted, and he would sometimes throw up his hands, chuckle, and say, “Maybe you are right.” He became a role model for all the committees, panels and review groups I participated in from that time onward.

Al was a generous colleague but his field was not mine, so I didn’t really know his work intimately until after We The People came to town. The Chicago History Museum asked me to lead a series of workshops for teachers on the “Native American story” of the founding era. Indians were not a major feature of the exhibit, but remarkably, as I prepared my lectures I discovered that the exhibit had been designed so capaciously that there were many opportunities for including their experiences and their voices. The broad themes—a diverse people, the Republic moves west, creating American culture and many more—provided an opening for discussions of race, empire and nationalism. Al (and his advisor, the Newberry’s own Helen Tanner) had included a number of Native artifacts, but it was the ideas that were open and accommodating. I am often asked how one integrates American Indian history into the national narrative; I rarely have a better answer than to send people to We The People.

Al was of my father’s generation. While we were not close friends, over the years I found myself looking to him for guidance and counting on him to embody the democratic and progressive values that matter most in our profession. He was a friend and mentor and I will miss him terribly.

Frederick E. Hoxie, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign