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 Jessica Roney
My first class with Ron Hoffman was on 9/11. The 9/11. I had just started the MA program at William and Mary and we had been assigned 900 pages for the first seminar. None of us knew what to expect in terms of how this professor we’d never met would run the class. He came in, said not a word about what had happened that day, but instead jumped directly into the American Revolution. It turned out to be the most comforting pocket of that terrible day: shutting out the rest of the world and drilling down into the readings for three hours so that briefly we all focused on something else. Ron’s classes were always like that: no chitchat, no distractions, but deep, intense interrogations of the readings and of us the students. Ron wouldn’t talk for the entire first hour of class. He’d come in, crack open a can of soda, occasionally slurping noisily from it, but otherwise he’d watch us run the conversation, now and then jotting down cryptic notes after someone spoke. (Was this a good sign? A bad sign? We all worried…) In the remaining time he would push us to the limits, exposing dreadfully where we had skimmed too lightly or misunderstood some point. I will never forget his dressing down of the entire class for failing to master Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic. He was, without a doubt, the most intimidating, demanding teacher I ever had, and my professors before and after were none of them slouches in those departments.
As my MA thesis advisor, Ron was exacting and difficult to convince. He would meet with me for hours at a time, despite his packed schedule and push me minutely on my interpretation of a source, my larger argument, my evidence, but also allow me to wander off my immediate topic (revolutionary Virginia) into debates and discussions about eighteenth-century Ireland, a side interest we shared. In my MA thesis defense—which had the word “disaster” used twice—it was he who used it the second time with “not a” in front. That was Ron: incredibly hard to please one-on-one, but my champion in every larger arena.
A turning point in our relationship came when I was offered a spot in a different Ph.D. program. I wrote Ron as soon as the offer came in, and he told me to come to his office that afternoon. It surprised me. I had emailed another professor who worked at the Institute earlier that week about something else and he had told me the whole Institute was up to its ears in some project and that he couldn’t get back to me for a couple weeks. But Ron, who surely was affected by the same project, dropped everything so I could come talk to him—as it turned out, for three hours. Ultimately, he said he personally preferred that I stay but that he thought I should go to the other program. I was incredibly moved by both parts of that. The compliment that he wanted me to stay and the still greater compliment that he thought I should take this other opportunity resonated deeply and showed me a depth of care and mentorship that moved me profoundly. I took everything he taught me as I moved on to my new Ph.D. program, grateful at every turn for the thousands of pages he’d made me read and how he’d helped me to frame and understand them, the way he’d pushed my thesis and me as a writer. Once as I was working on my dissertation he wrote me something that he intended as a compliment but that I read as a shattering criticism (he called my writing “facile,” by which he meant easy to read but which I understood as shallow) and I was utterly distraught. My Ph.D. advisor, a wonderful but gruff fellow, remarked that I set too much store in what Ron thought. Maybe he was right, but I never stopped.
Talking in the last months as his health has declined with other people who love Ron, I’ve come to realize that many of their memories are far more quotidian and social and, well, personal, than mine. They knew him in such a different way. I didn’t hang out on a daily basis at the Institute; I didn’t go drinking with him at conferences; I don’t really have funny stories. My relationship is I met Ron when I was in my first year of graduate school, a 23-year-old entirely uncertain of my scholarly path. He took me under his wing and his belief in my work, his probing questions, his training about how to think and how to argue, they meant everything to me through each stage of my scholarly development. He always remained the critic against whose feedback I measured what I was doing. He was, and remains, the audience I imagine in my head when I am writing. My book, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition, contains in its very title a gesture to the importance Ron has for me, because, of course, his first book was called A Spirit of Dissension. He and Sally remarked on that when I gave him his copy, and I glowed that he had understood.
I am grateful for the life of Ron Hoffman and for all that he taught me. I am grateful for Sally, and how both of them made (make) me feel loved. I am grateful for how many people loved and appreciated Ron and that all the good he did had such great effect on so many people. I am grateful that I got to tell him all of this while he was alive. I feel helplessly furious that he didn’t get more time to enjoy retirement and to finish the next volume of the Carroll papers. And I feel so, so sad that he is gone. He was my mentor, and he meant the world to me.