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About the OI

Brett Rushforth

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 Brett Rushforth

I am heartbroken at the news that Ron Hoffman passed away earlier today. He was a mentor, a role model, and a true friend. I loved him more than he knew, and I will miss him.

Ron befriended me sixteen years ago when I was a graduate student presenting at the Omohundro Institute’s annual conference. Sensing that I was a little lost as I wandered the dorm complex at the University of Maryland, he invited me to dinner with him, Sally Mason, Woody Holton, and Michael McDonnell. I tried to play it cool, but I was star struck in the presence of these intellectual giants. Ron didn’t seem to notice. He just treated me as a peer and kept paying for my Diet Coke refills as we waited a full four hours for Mike to get through post-9/11 security at Dulles. Ron never got over how many Diet Cokes I drank as we waited. “It was astonishing!” he loved to say, hands raised in exaggerated surprise. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

Ron’s generosity was only matched by his intellectual curiosity. When I interviewed for the Omohundro Institute’s postdoctoral fellowship, it quickly became clear that he had read every word of my dissertation, including the footnotes. And he helped me see things in it that I hadn’t yet, in part by helping me see what I had not yet fully explained. I watched this happen scores of times as we sat on fellowship committees, gave comprehensive exams, and attended colloquia. He would often get a puzzled look, raise his index fingers, and say, “I’m having a hard time understanding X or Y about your work.” Sometimes the answer to his question seemed obvious until, after a few seconds of reflection, others in the room started to realize that we didn’t actually understand either. Rather than a rhetorical device or, worse, a masked critique, this was Ron’s good-faith effort to really understand. And I learned to pay attention to moments where an argument didn’t satisfy him. His mind was as incisive as any I’ve known.

As a mentor, Ron was not afraid to MENT. Early in my fellowship, I had made some ill-advised remarks in a department meeting I was invited to attend. The next morning I entered my office to find on my desk a yellow sheet, torn from a legal pad, with Ron’s distinctive handwriting scratched on both sides. “I want to give you some advice:” (he got right to the point) “Department meetings leak like sieves.” He talked about etiquette, word choice, temperance; about small communities and long memories. He then finished the note with an expression of his faith in my abilities, something I’ve been trying to live up to ever since.

Ron had his quirks. He drove like a madman. He lived on Caesar salad, French fries, and hot chocolate. He wanted to look like Paul Newman. He sometimes asked too much of people, demanding of them what he demanded of himself.

But he was a support to so many, and one of the brightest lights on my horizon. When I visited him in April, it was clear that he was nearing the end. I wanted him to know what he meant to me, how much I credited him with whatever small success I’ve had in my career. It was obvious that he understood me, but he wanted to respond and was struggling to form the words. I knelt beside him, and he managed, in a whisper, “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

Now you do, my friend. Now everyone does.

~Brett Rushforth