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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · April 21, 2017

History and Institutional Memory

memorials 9 min read


Exterior, Bruton Parish church

It was a bright, hot, beautiful Virginia spring day when we paid our respects to Thad Tate (1924–2017) at Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church, his longtime congregation. As Director of the Omohundro Institute (1972–1989), and Editor and Book Review Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly before that, Thad’s formal association with and service to the Institute predated mine. He continued to be a presence in and around Williamsburg since his retirement, however, and I got to interact with him a bit in that context. Working on his obituary this week, with a lot of help from friends and colleagues, especially from Sally Mason, Assistant to the Director under my predecessor, was a rare opportunity to reflect on Thad’s accomplishments.

Most of the people who have written to me and sent contributions to the memorial page for Thad knew him mostly—even if not exclusively—professionally, but some had become very close friends. A growing group of their memories of Thad on the OI’s memorials page are poignant and fun. I especially like Norman Fiering’s memories of an Institute cookbook, and Thad’s recipe for a “Director’s Salad.”  Norman was a fellow at the Institute, and then served as Editor of Publications in the 1970s. When we located a copy of the cookbook and were able to post it alongside his reflections, Norman was rueful, as befits an editor-historian, that he hadn’t remembered the precise wording of the recipe and a crucial injunction concerning iceberg lettuce!  Of course, this is why it’s so delicious to have the original source.

But I appreciated this opportunity to return to the source more than Norman might have guessed. Thinking so much about Thad this past week also prompted me to reflect on the many ways we reckon with an institution’s—and particularly this institution’s—history. The work we do, and how we organize to do it, is a subject I’ve turned to a few times in this space. I’ve written about the early iterations of #vastearlyamerica, and about the Omohundro name—how it came to us, and what we might make of it now. Yet how do we remember particular individuals, and account for their place in our history?  Most of the OI’s community now won’t have known Thad Tate, and even for those who do, thinking about him as an individual is a more conventional form of memorial than considering him in an institutional context.

Thaddeus W. (Thad) Tate, Jr.

I chatted with Thad at Institute functions and informal gatherings, but I knew him best through a form of writing with which I have become all too familiar—the memo. Thad’s memos on a wide range of Institute matters, from staffing and finance to publishing practices and the beginnings of active fundraising, are illuminating about both the organization’s history and the nature of the director’s work as he saw it. He had a strong, clear voice in these pieces, advocating for the Institute and for the field of history he was passionate about. He was instrumental in several moments of the OI’s evolution that any historian of the organization would point to as critical:  the creation of the OI Associates, achieving our charitable tax status, and winning grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities for fellowships.

Reading Thad’s correspondence also reminds me that the nature of work inside an organization is worth thinking about, too. The pace and volume of communication has changed quite a bit. Thad also expected significant secretarial support, even after retirement. And, as he noted in the marvelous interviews that Fredrika Teute conducted in 1992, most of his professional opportunities came by way of “the old-boy network.”  Those interviews, which Fredrika edited and the William and Mary Quarterly published in 1993, gave Thad an opportunity to place himself within the Institute’s history.

At his memorial service I met two men named for Thad. William & Mary’s president, Taylor Revely, took time from a Board of Visitor’s meeting to attend because of Thad’s importance to the college. Thad was an inveterate hiker and traveler who loved the highways and byways of Virginia and North Carolina. Here’s what else I learned about Thad this week. He had a temper!  He cared passionately about civil rights, and was a loud and proud Democrat. He talked a lot, and didn’t always listen as well. These are memories of a full person.

In yesterday’s homily, the Rector of Bruton Parish, Rev. Christopher Epperson, recalled Thad as a fundamentally gentle soul. But as he also noted, we all knew—or didn’t know—Thad differently “and therefore our remembering will be different.”  In his last years, Thad struggled with dementia, and often he wasn’t clear about where he was or what he was doing. He is now resting in a lovely spot just inside the Bruton Parish brick walls. I don’t know whether he would be more amused or bemused by what’s taking place outside them; ours is surely a different world than the one he lived and worked in.

Ours is also a different Institute. I could have titled this post “Why Read about the Passing of People You Never Knew.”  That it is possible to be a different organization, to evolve, embracing some traditions and shedding others, engaging critically with our own history, is part of Thad’s legacy, too. When you are part of a community like this one, setting the past in context is vital. We do this by vocation, we do this from a passionate commitment to understanding, and it is no less important to do so for the institution that brings us together.

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