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About the OI

Andrew Schocket

Hoffman Main

Ronald Hoffman was the longest serving director of the Omohundro Institute.

Below are remembrance from colleagues. To share a remembrance of Ron, please contact Martha Howard (mxhowa@wm.edu).

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From Andrew Schocket

Ron Hoffman’s more public contributions to the study of early American history will inspire many historians’ well-deserved encomia.

Accordingly, I’ll speak to one of his less-celebrated but equally well-played roles. I’m one of the proud Members of the Tribe. Not the W&M Tribe or that other tribe—all right, actually, those tribes, too—but one more exclusive: those of us fortunate enough to have had Ron as dissertation advisor.

I remember Ron in the classroom. He expected his students to grasp complex ideas and preferred challenging readings (he may be the only professor ever to assign the Rutmans’ Explicatus rather than A Place in Time!). Unsettled by Ron’s penchants for asking extremely specific questions and for alternating between owl-like focus on individual students and seeming distraction with his socks—notwithstanding his being also an owl-level listener—most grad students were terrified of him, which I suspect Ron secretly savored in a good-natured way. When he came to William & Mary, we still were taking a four-course load, as opposed to three courses at the University of Maryland. My peers nominated me to approach Ron to suggest that his syllabus might be a little long. So there I was, in his office, supplicating the scholar who had probably read more than anyone on the topic to trim the readings. I’ll never forget his response: “But everything here is absolutely essential to understanding the American Revolution!” Meanwhile, he knew that at the other end of Duke of Gloucester Street, where I worked summers and weekends as an interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg, I had to explain the Revolution in 20 minutes. Perhaps recalling Charles Carroll of Carollton’s observation to his Papa that small concessions on the part of authority can quell discontent, Ron did some token shaving of pages. The class was an intense experience, from which I learned crucial lessons about the Revolution, but just as much about how to think as an historian.

Ron wouldn’t have been a best-matched supervisor for students who couldn’t take criticism or weren’t independent, perhaps even too independent. He gave excellent advice, provided copious and detailed feedback, was always accessible, and willing to tell me what I needed to hear. We once gritted our teeth through half-a-dozen iterations of one of my fellowship applications in under two weeks, faxing back and forth, with Ron undoubtedly even more frustrated than I was, but reviewing each draft with care and precision. He didn’t need to; it was an act of love. I dreaded and anticipated meeting with Ron. Dread, because he did not go softly on me or my labors—but my work became much stronger because of it. Anticipation, because of conversations, and even more for the stories. Stories of growing up in Baltimore, of Ron’s Navy service, of his small-college undergraduate days, of Ira Berlin and Merrill Jensen at the University of Wisconsin, of personalities in the profession, of bizarre conference sessions and funny research-trip incidents.

Ron refrained from explicit praise, preferring oblique forms of positive reinforcement. After researching my dissertation for over a year, I broached changing my topic. Ron didn’t hop on his desk and sing “Climb Every Mountain” (although I’d bet a lot of early Americanists would have paid cash to see Ron dress up in a habit). He also didn’t forbid me from starting over, or, for that matter, from anything else; he wasn’t that sort of advisor. Rather, he remarked that I came up with the new topic quickly because it was easy; the reason I was struggling with my original topic was because of its difficulty. He told me that he wouldn’t have encouraged me to pursue my first topic if he didn’t think that I had the ability to do it justice. That affirmation gave me the gumption to finish my dissertation and make it into a successful monograph.

Ron was also greatly supportive during my challenges in graduate school. While I was taking classes, my family suffered two unexpected deaths. The following year, my mother underwent major surgery. Each time, he was deeply understanding. As with any sensitive historian, Ron’s historical imagination of his Carrolls—despite how foreign they were to his own experience, Maryland connection notwithstanding—stemmed from his profound human empathy, a gift he quietly extended to the students and Institute fellows who, with Sally Mason, he took under his wing.

My mother once asked me about Ron’s place in the profession. My immediate reaction was to call him a don, in the mafia sense of that term. Ron knew everyone, and everyone seemed to owe him a favor because of his generosity. I benefited greatly from that magnanimity. Whenever I first stepped into an archive, within a day or two the institution’s director would walk up to me, introduce himself (archive leadership being still too male), and invite me to lunch or coffee. Ron had called ahead.

As much as I treasure having studied with Ron, I also value the years since. In my first email to him after I had graduated, I decided to get bold, and addressed it to “Ron” rather than “Prof. Hoffman.” His reply, which I could picture him writing with glee: “It’s Ron now, is it?” He continued to be a generous scholar and sounding board, caring about me and my family, and, of course, sharing wonderful anecdotes. Many have been the moments when I’ve caught myself conversing with a student, realizing that I’ve internalized his Talmudic style of answering questions with questions, or extending a small kindness because of the model he set.

There are always more memories. Like the time he inadvertently startled me when, as I was taking a shower in my unspectacled myopia in the William & Mary Rec Center, where Ron exercised furiously on a near-daily basis, I heard Ron’s voice say, “Andy, about the readings…” Or once in class when I blurted something so far off the mark that he big-heartedly chose to treat it as a hilarious comment rather than as a misguided observation. Or in his office sometime in the mid-1990s, when he had me physically demonstrate how to restart his computer. Or the first time he admitted in public I had been his student: at a small conference with high-wattage attendees, including the chair of my new department, he stood and began his question with, “I chaired Andy’s dissertation, and for years I’ve been asking him about…,” as only a vexed but proud Jewish parent can.

Ron made an indelible imprint on the study of early America—beyond his own brilliant work, in his editing and his helming of the Omohundro Institute so as to expand intentionally how we interpret early America, and no less crucially, who participates in that conversation. But just as much, he marked the few students privileged to get to know him well, imparting a legacy of wit, of insight, of affection, and, in the best sense of the term, humanity.

—Andrew Schocket