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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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From Bea Hardy
Ron Hoffman’s death a few days ago saddened me but also inspired me to recall many incidents from my long relationship with him, incidents that I remember with a smile on my face and great affection for him. I first met Ron in August 1984, when as a first-semester TA at the University of Maryland, I was assigned to his U.S. history survey class. I ended up being his TA for four semesters and learned a lot about teaching from him. Ron, always a bit of a raconteur, loved to tell stories. He’d sit down on the table at the front of the room, and the students would listen raptly as he told them about George Washington’s inability to have children or Andrew Jackson’s battles with the Second Bank.
There were one aspect of being Ron’s TA that drove me crazy: he would regularly be 5-10 minutes late to class. He wasn’t a hypocrite–he didn’t care if students were late–but he definitely minded when they left early. When I TA’d for his upper-level American Revolution class, we switched rooms at the beginning of the semester with another class. One poor student from the other class missed the sign on the door announcing the switch. When Ron came in late and started lecturing on the American Revolution, the student got up to leave, as he was in the wrong classroom. Ron, not realizing the student’s mistake, was furious and told the student to stop right there. He then launched into a tirade about how he didn’t care if people were late to class, that was understandable (as I said, he wasn’t a hypocrite), but that leaving a class early was absolutely the rudest thing a student could do and he simply wouldn’t stand for it. You could have heard a pin drop in the room, the students were so stunned. The offending student meekly went back to his seat, and no one left the class early the entire semester.
That American Revolution class also provided me a glimpse of Ron’s compassion towards young people. Ron was a demanding teacher. The course required a 25-page final paper, which the students found quite daunting. While grading, I discovered one paper that was clearly plagiarized. The student, a senior, was not the most adept plagiarist in the world and had included citations to the books he used–books which he had graciously already returned to the library after turning down the corners of the pages he’d plagiarized from and marking in pencil in the margins the passages he plagiarized. I turned the plagiarized paper over to Ron a few minutes before class. I also told some other TAs that I’d caught a plagiarist, and one of the students in the class overheard me. The news spread through the class like wildfire. At the end of class, the offending student came up to Ron and asked, “Am I the plagiarist you caught?” Ron hauled him off to his office. A while later, Ron came to find me in the TA offices. He looked extremely sheepish. “I know,” he said, “that you’re going to be mad at me. But I am going to let him off with an F. He reminds me of my son, and I could see my son getting into a jam like that. I just don’t have the heart to charge him.” That was typical of Ron; he was tough but kind.
Ron did, of course, get angry or frustrated at times. When I was getting ready for my comprehensive exams, one of the other professors who taught colonial history at Maryland asked me to enroll in that professor’s research seminar. The professor wasn’t familiar with any of the students who had signed up and wanted to be sure to have an experienced grad student in the class. Since I was getting ready for exams, the professor offered to give me an incomplete, knowing I would not actually be working on my paper during the semester. The professor had been right to be worried about the students, many of whom stumbled during the semester and begged for incompletes, which the professor agreed to give. Late in the semester, the professor fell ill, and Ron stepped in to finish the course. Ron had this vein in his temple that would pulsate when he was angry, and that vein got a workout in our few class meetings with Ron. At his first meeting with us, the vein went crazy when we went around the room telling him about our research projects and nearly everyone ended with, “But I’m getting an extension.” He exploded at the end of class. One of the few students who did finish was an older woman who was writing about taverns in colonial Maryland. When she presented her paper to us, it became clear that much of her research came from historical markers. The vein throbbed away, but Ron was always respectful of his elders and managed not to lose it in front of the class. What he may have written on the paper itself, I don’t know, but we did not see that particular student around the department after that.
Ron served as my dissertation director. He suggested the topic for my dissertation, the Catholic gentry in colonial Maryland. I would, he said, be able to find maybe 200 Catholics by name, but they would be gentry. By focusing on them, I would help put his beloved Carrolls in context. About 6,000 Catholics later, it occurred to me that Ron had been unduly optimistic. Nonetheless, it actually was a great topic. Ron was a very patient director, always generous with his time whenever I would stop by his office, and he was usually, although not always, encouraging. He left for the Institute in Williamsburg before I was finished, but he was able to continue as my director. After I started writing, I sent him three chapters on religious practices. He wrote back that they put him “under the table” but that inexplicably, Carl Lounsbury found them fascinating (thank you, Carl!). He encouraged me to restructure my approach. I did and ended up with a much better dissertation as a result. Ron was very gracious about my conclusion that the Irish Carrolls, in being as combative as the first two Charles Carrolls were, behaved very differently than most Catholic gentry, who were descended from English families.
Ron being my dissertation director made a tremendous difference in my life. He saw this as a lifelong commitment. Aside from playing an important role in my meeting my eventual husband, he also affected my career choice. After several years as a history professor, I decided teaching was not for me and went to work for National History Day. One day, the then-director of the Maryland Historical Society called me and asked me to apply for the library director’s job. Ron had recommended me, when the director had asked him for suggestions. I had never thought about working in a library. If Ron had not recommended me, I don’t know what I would be doing now. But I applied and got the job and have worked in libraries ever since then.
I later ended up at William and Mary as director of special collections at Swem Library, again in part because of Ron’s recommendation to the dean of libraries. The Institute’s offices are in Swem Library, but I did not take nearly enough advantage of having Ron and his partner Sally Mason in the same building. I stopped by occasionally and attended some Institute colloquia, but it always seemed like there would be time later to visit, no need to rush now. After six years, I moved on to be dean of libraries elsewhere, and Ron retired a year later. I saw him several times, but not often enough. I am comforted by the thought that I wrote him years ago to tell him what he meant to me and how much I appreciated what he’d done for me. But let me say one more time, thank you, Ron, my teacher, my mentor, my friend.