Two decades of friendship

Contributed By Shane White


Roy was my friend for nigh on two decades. I first came across him through his work. Eight Hours is a marvelous book. For mine, it was one of the key books that helped make labor history interesting, that showed that the term could encompass rather more than all those tedious, although no doubt virtuous, histories of trade unions. The book had nothing in particular to do with what I was writing my dissertation on but it was one of the most influential forces in shaping what I put down on the page. Reading it I was constantly jotting down ideas that Roy’s prose had triggered—sly little asides, sharp observations, nice turns of phrase, all were grist for my mill.

Our other “pre-contact” was over a piece I wrote that was solicited by the RHR and then rejected. My letter back to the RHR pointing out some of the journal’s shortcomings—in those days, one read RHR for the interviews with historians, Josh Brown’s stuff and, of course, R.J. Lambrose, but the quality of many of the articles was not exactly overwhelming-- gave me no little satisfaction. Roy and I derived a fair bit of amusement over the years out of that letter and what I had surmised about what had gone on even though I was a graduate student 10,000 miles distant—I mentioned some of this in the memorial site for Larry and Roy told me a couple of times that he was pleased to see a version out there.

I met Roy at an OAH but really got to know him when I organized for him to come to Sydney to give the keynote to the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association meeting in Sydney in 1990. Roy gave a wonderful talk on Central Park. Roy and I got on just great—I think we both believed in the virtue of gossip and of course Roy knew all these historians and I had spent a total of 6 weeks of my life in America and knew about two people who had written a book on American history. I can still hear Deborah’s voice as I was driving them both around to some site or other—“OK, you two, that’s enough.”

From that time on I saw Roy once or twice a year, either at the OAH or when I went to Washington. He used to joke that he probably spent more time with me than with friends who lived in DC or NY. At first I used to stay with Roy because I was scrimping and scraping to afford to be in America but I carried on staying over on Jackson street even when I could charge a hotel bill up to a research grant. The reason was simple—the best way to talk to Roy was to be there at breakfast (tho I must confess jet lag meant I usually emerged from my room rather later than Roy and Deborah) or in odd minutes here and there during the day. And we talked, and drank coffee, and talked some more.

When I think of Roy a whole series of images come to mind. The slightly awkward hug when we met. I was glad to see someone else mention this—I had always assumed it was just me not coping that well with the rather more touchy-feely American culture. Roy was incapable of just doing one thing at once—when a call came in that was going to take some time he’d often keep on tapping away on the computer but I also loved watching him “multitask” by unloading the dishwasher or in a slightly maniacal fashion grab some cleaning materials and scrub the coffee table or some other flat surface that could use a burnish. And I also still derive amusement from thinking about the moderately comical fights we would have about who was paying for dinner—there are some things I don’t lose and I soon worked out that the pre-emptive strike of paying on the way back from the bathroom was the best way to resolve that one.

I remember what now seems a rather weird conversation from the early 1990s when Roy was trying to convince me of the virtues of email and how useful it would be for someone in my position (ie geographically challenged by the lights of many on the east coast of America). And what’s more, hardly anyone was using it and it would be good to have email exchanges. I also remember from way back then talking to Roy, horrified, as he put together a new apple computer for some of the Voyager stuff without even opening the instruction manual. Last time I stayed with Roy he also gave me hours of talk and demonstrations on the virtues of zotero. Roy was slightly bemused by friends who were hardly computer-ept but he did tolerate us !

I can’t help but think back a couple of years to the San Jose OAH. I flew into San Francisco and Larry Levine and Roy were there to pick me up. We went back to Berkeley and had dinner and then the next day Cornelia joined us and we drove down to the conference. It was a terrific time. And then within weeks Larry found out he had cancer and died in what seemed a very quick fashion and then Roy too was diagnosed with the disease and died in even quicker time. Roy’s illness was one of the things that most troubled Larry as the end approached—they used to have long phone conversations as Roy trooped around getting medical treatment.

Roy was probably the most generous person I have ever met, certainly by a considerable distance the most generous academic or historian. He was also very principled, perhaps ethical is the right word. When Roy spoke at the memorial for Larry Levine he quoted from me about Larry’s aggressive egalitarianism. I’d use the same words for Roy although in tone and manner the two were rather different. I’d also add that Roy was very sharp—I loved talkingt o hima bout books or articles we had just read. It was getting to know people such as Roy and Larry Levine that showed me the possibility of an egalitarian, inquiring and open-minded academe creating exciting history, a vision that I immediately contrasted with the dead hand of Oxbridge—crabbed, close-minded and wearing tweed jackets with leather patches—that held such sway in Australia for so long. Roy and Larry were very large factors in my embrace of many things American.

And yet even if Roy was closer to sanctification than most of us, he was, thank god, no saint. Indeed, I found him even more endearing when some of those rough edges were, usually privately, displayed. Roy could be funny and savage at someone’s grandstanding; Roy heaped thoroughly deserved harsh words on the (absent) heads of people who let him down and had left him to do all the work even when he was very sick; and I remember him being almost speechless and not very happy on hearing some material of his being used by someone else and not particularly well either.

For all that, he really was such a decent and self-effacing guy. I can remember how embarrassed he got when he asked me to write a reference for him for the Virginia award he got, offering me at least 20 ways out. The last time I saw Roy was at the OAH in Minneapolis earlier this year. “Treatment” had taken its toll and the trademark moustache as well as his hair had gone. Jon Wiener and I joked with him that if he could just dress a bit more snappily he would be the spitting image of Foucault. Everyone knew Roy but as he walked around the convention people he’d known for decades simply did not recognize him; many, he thought, were probably wondering who this weird guy was who was smiling at them and saying “Hi.” He also knew that if he went up and said “Hi, I’m Roy” these people would be mortified. That was Roy—always worried about the other person.

It is still very hard to believe that he’s gone. For me at least, going to the OAH next year without either Larry or Roy is going to make it all seem very strange.