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 (email@example.com).
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From Michael Guasco
I have on several occasions since I published my book been asked how I came up with my topic. My answer is simple: “I didn’t. Ron Hoffman did.” Anyone familiar with the historiography will quickly recognize my work on the early history of slavery in the Atlantic world as being in the same vein of those scholars who were wrapped up in the “origins debate” of the late 20th century. What they may not know is that I was driven down that path by the energy, curiosity, and acumen of Ron Hoffman.
What I didn’t know at the time was that from the moment he arrived in Williamsburg (like me, in 1992) Ron was animated by a desire bring some sense of clarity to the entangled problems of race, racism, and slavery in early America. Quite apart from me, he and other people the Institute (as we usually called it in its pre-Omohundro days) were already hard at work laying the groundwork for what would prove to be a fascinating weekend symposium in October 1994 (at which I felt fortunate enough to just sit quietly in the back) and, eventually, a special issue of The William and Mary Quarterly in 1997.
Ron’s ambition to so something big, something meaningful, and something that reflected his sense of social and historical justice spilled over into my lap by accident. I had planned during my first two years at William & Mary to write a dissertation largely concerned with antislavery political activity in Revolutionary Virginia. Ron was a natural fit as an advisor, considering his own work at the time on the Revolutionary period and Maryland in particular.
Like all mentors and mentees, I imagine, we spent quite a bit of time in his office chatting things over, especially during my second year as I was wrapping up my coursework and preparing for my written and oral exams in spring 1994. Visiting him was always a bit daunting, however. The guy scared me a little. Ron had this way of sitting there quietly, looking down or off in another direction, possibly readjusting his socks, or maybe I was just there to amuse him while he ate dry cereal out of the box. I always felt I was pitching him something he wasn’t all that interested in. In fact, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t interested in the slightest, in large part because he always changed the subject. Always.
What did we talk about instead? For one, we talked a lot about Winthrop Jordan. Again, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Ron clearly had race and slavery on the brain in the early 1990s. As it turned out, so did I. I loved Jordan’s work as much as anything I had ever read and was particularly animated by the debate that some scholars had been having in its reflected glow about racism and its place in the American origin story—especially the story of slavery. Ron and I talked about race and slavery for hours, and, when we did, he looked at me, nodded his head, sat up a little, sometimes smiled, and even appeared to be listening a bit more carefully than usual.
The moment of truth for me arrived at the conclusion of my oral exams at which, after everyone else had left the room, Ron said two things to me. First, he said dryly: “Don’t worry. Nobody will ever want you to teach the 20th century anyway.” Second, he offered up something even more bracing: “I think you should change your topic.”
Looking back now nearly 25 years ago, I am confident that this was both terrible advice and exactly what I needed to hear. I’m still not sure he had any business supervising a dissertation that ended up being as much about Elizabethan England as it was about anything else. I know I wasn’t remotely equipped in 1994 to do what he suggested I might do: “You should resolve the origins debate once and for all.” And I’m pretty sure I never really stuck the landing (which may be one of the reasons it took me another 14 years to revise the book . . . which made no effort to resolve the origins debate).
Yet, Ron’s advice to me taught me some things about history and being a historian that I carry with me to this day. I learned from Ron Hoffman that the questions are sometimes more important than the answers and that the discipline of history often demands more from us than we can easily deliver. As far as I’m concerned, asking big questions is a good thing. And asking the kinds of questions that might shine a clarifying light on the world we happen to live in today—even better! Maybe it’s my imagination or my overly sentimental memory, but in my version of things, I absorbed some of these lessons from Ron.
Ron had exacting standards and his comments could sting—he didn’t always remember to put on his kid gloves. But Ron was also an incredibly generous mentor who gave of himself more than I should have reasonably expected. In my case, he was invariably kind, caring, and a tireless advocate. I can’t even begin to calculate how much time and energy he devoted to me over the years to navigate my way through graduate school, earn my degree, earn fellowships, and ultimately get a job. I’m glad I had the opportunity to thank him for all of that.
I wish, however, that I had thanked him more for his trust. Ron planted the seeds of a historical problem that has largely defined the past 20 years of my scholarly life. But it wasn’t just any historical question, it was a version of the one that clearly animated him in the mid-1990s and beyond. It was something that mattered to him. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that Ron entrusted me with one of his passions. I don’t think I realized at the time that Ron was not simply throwing out a random idea for me to explore. He was investing a deeply meaningful piece of himself in me. Why he thought that some kid who couldn’t even master the basic facts of 20th century U.S. history was an appropriate vessel, I’m sure I’ll never know. But I know now that he trusted me and for that I could never say thank you enough.
I thought it was a funny, off-handed comment in 2001 when I took a permanent job at a liberal arts college and Ron said to me, almost ruefully, that I would never be heard from again. He even quipped that he was somewhat disappointed because I was supposed to make him famous. (I’m still not sure if that was a joke or not.) He knew of course that I would disappear a little (maybe even a lot) into the day-to-day life of a teacher at an undergraduate institution. For my part, I was thrilled. This was my dream job. Only later did I fully realize that he was sad, in some sense, to see our work, our collective enterprise, get set aside.
But it didn’t and it won’t. Which brings me back to my book. We authors are always afforded the opportunity to thank those people in print who helped us along the way. Certainly, I tried to thank Ron in my acknowledgments by suggesting that my book would not have happened were it not for him. But, in truth, that’s not really enough. So please allow me to double down on that sentiment: my book is our book; my work is our work. It has been for a long time now and I can’t imagine it will ever be otherwise.
Thank you, Ron.