Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


In Memoriam: Alfred F. Young

Tributes to Al Young will quite properly note his impact on our understanding of the Revolutionary and Early National Eras through his own scholarship and his support of the work of others that came in so many ways. They will repeatedly refer to his generous nature and his willingness to share his truly unrivaled knowledge of the period and resources on which that knowledge was built as well as offering insights and critiques, most times with a gentle prod but occasionally with a subtle but firm shove.

For many of us who were his students, he was also a master teacher and friend, and not just of those intent on a career as a professional historian. Al taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students whose goal was to obtain a degree and be something other than an academic historian. He respected their work and gave it his full attention. He understood when talented students left the graduate program, giving them the encouragement to find a new path but also letting them know that the door was always open to return if they wished.

For Al, history was too important to be left to historians. He genuinely cared about what non-historians knew and thought about the past and he respected them enough to both learn from them and teach them. Others have noted his commitment to public history through his work with the American Social History Project, his 1994 “Modest Proposal” for a “bill of rights” for museums, and the We the People exhibition at the Chicago Historical Society.1 I think Al was most excited when living descendents of the exhibition’s key historical characters were feted at the exhibition’s opening.

Al influenced every aspect of my professional life. I showed up unannounced in DeKalb in the summer of 1973 and Al took time out from packing their house as they moved to Oak Park to hand me a drink and talk about graduate schools. He made a couple of phone calls and lined up a place for me to stay overnight with graduate students. After I enrolled a year later, at an end-of-the-year party with students he inquired about my future research. Just indicating his interest was a huge encouragement to someone who wasn’t sure yet that this historian thing was going to work out. One summer he paid me a much-needed $100 to housesit and walk his dogs when the Young family went on vacation. When I expressed an interest in workers and technology, he suggested that I look for a summer internship at an historic site or museum so I could get hands-on experience. When faced with a choice between two temporary jobs—a short-term museum job and a longer-term editorial position—he counseled me to treat the time like an apprenticeship where the goal was variety of experience and not specialization. Over the years I’ve discussed every major career issue with Al and he always gave sage advice. When they reached college age, I made sure that both of my sons met Al, he was that important.

Bill Pretzer, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution

1 Alfred F. Young, “A Modest Proposal: A Bill of Rights for American Museums,” The Public Historian 14 (1992): 67–75.