Roy Saved My Marriage

Contributed By Sean Takats


It’s astonishing to me how much my life has changed over the past year and a half thanks to Roy. Eighteen months ago I was living on the opposite side of the planet with a two-year-old daughter and a wife eager to see her husband put that new history PhD to some use. We had another kid on the way and were about to abandon our tropical digs for Washington, DC. But because I had only one decent job opportunity stateside that was nowhere near DC, I was faced with the prospect of “commuting” hundreds of miles to visit my family. Then out of the blue I came across an announcement for a post-doc at someplace called the Center for History and New Media.

I didn’t have the foggiest idea what CHNM was, but I did know where it was: Northern Virginia. Bingo! Sure, the fellowship targeted at those with a “background in the history of science, technology, and industry, broadly defined,” Oh well, I could at least hope that it was indeed very broadly defined. A few days after I applied for the fellowship, I happened to read about a talk that Roy was going to give on digital history and from that description began to grasp what CHNM did. I forwarded the announcement to Sarah, and here’s what I wrote: “Sounds perfect for me, doesn't it?”

What I had realized about CHNM is that it combines the two things I like best: technology and history. I tried a career in the former and it wasn’t very fun. When I studied for a PhD in the latter, I couldn’t stop tinkering and programming. By inventing a way to fuse the two, Roy was essentially giving me the opportunity to pretend that my whole academic and professional trajectory had been leading up to doing “digital history.” If only I could get the CHNM post-doc, my life would have meaning!

Two days later I received a message from CHNM asking for a phone interview, but unfortunately it couldn’t be scheduled until the end of the month, long after I needed to notify already anxious people at my other job opportunity. Here Roy was incredibly accommodating: immediately we spoke by phone about what the CHNM job would involve, and by a stroke of pure, unadulterated luck, Roy’s digital history talk happened to be at my “home” institution, where he could (and did) buttonhole my advisor. I later learned from her that he had been particularly keen to ascertain whether I was a “team player.” Luckily, the truth never came to light.

About a week later Roy contacted me with the good news that I had been selected for the post-doc. He then engaged in what he described as “a lot of yelling at people” to keep the formal offer letter moving through the bowels of HR, the dean’s office, and the provost’s office, all so that I wouldn’t have to turn down my other job opportunity without a solid offer in hand. In his famous attention to detail, Roy also took the time to send me daycare and real estate information. He would have made a remarkable headhunter.

I was so incredibly excited about the prospect of getting a new laptop, new software, a new office, all in the service of history. On one of our last nights in that land so nearly devoid of computer technology, I prophetically remarked to my wife, “I am going to nerd out so much.” And thanks to Roy, I have.

But as it turns out, the post-doc was only the beginning of my streak of Roy-luck. Within just a few weeks of moving back the USA and starting work at CHNM, Roy took me aside at lunch to let me know that George Mason was going to run a tenure-track search that fall in my field. “There’s no inside track,” he warned me. But then Roy of course went about doing everything he could to help me get hired: writing letters, critiquing my research presentation, and more. And he did all these things while already sick. I got the job.

So thanks, Roy. Thanks for hiring me for my first academic job, and thanks for helping me land the second. Thanks for giving me work that keeps me happily up at night and eager to wake in the morning. And thanks for the chance to keep my family together.