A few good men(sches)

Contributed By Nancy Hewitt


I can’t remember how or exactly when I met Roy. I imagine it was at the MARHO table at the AHA, sometime in the late 1970s when I was finishing my PhD. Sue Porter Benson might have introduced us, or perhaps I had just signed up to sit at the table the same time as he did. He seemed always to be at the MARHO table then, before he started serving on every committee in sight. In those days, there were a lot of leftist men who hadn’t quite gotten the gist of feminism, but Roy was a welcome exception. Just when I was about to utter some universal complaint about macho leftists or about one more session on labor history that failed to consider women or gender, Roy would pop into my head. Then I’d have to take a deep breath and realize that there were a few good men.

It wasn’t just that Roy acknowledged women’s history. He also embraced what I thought of as feminist process, though he didn’t articulate his style in those terms, or any terms--he just got things done in an incredibly collaborative and unassuming way. I remember especially a moment in 1991, when we served together on the OAH Program Committee. There were lots of proposals for complete sessions that year and a big stack of single paper proposals as well. Most of the committee was willing to focus on the complete sessions and only move to the single papers if we really needed to add speakers or sessions. But Roy cornered me at the first coffee break and said we should volunteer to go through all the single proposals and create sessions because otherwise lots of graduate students and young faculty who didn’t have the networks to produce full sessions would get lost. So we did just that—and it yielded some great sessions. On so many occasions like this one, Roy did the invisible work that makes such a difference and refused any special acknowledgement for his efforts. He was a mensch.

Around the same time, I was serving as an outside reviewer for The Park and the People. In that capacity, I discovered that Roy’s passion for collaboration was just as strong when it came to research. Roy (and his co-author, Betsy Blackmar) actually seemed excited to get suggestions for revisions. I think this was the first time that I let a press give out my name to the authors of a manuscript, and they were so appreciative of my comments that I foolishly thought their response was typical. (I soon learned otherwise, but I was forever grateful that they had taken my ideas seriously. It gave me greater faith in my critical abilities and served as a model for how to embrace criticisms and suggestions about my own work.)

In addition to Roy’s generosity and collaborative spirit, he was excellent at persuading people to take on extra work for a good cause since he was always doing more than his share. The point was reinforced over and over again as I crossed paths with Roy in MARHO, the OAH, the ASA, History Matters, and especially, the American Social History Project. When I was recruited to join the ASHP group revising Who Built America? in the mid-1990s, it was Roy who called. I was overwhelmed with commitments of various kinds at the time and would have turned anyone else down. But Roy always seemed to be juggling more obligations than anyone else and doing it so well. Plus, he was listened so carefully to my concerns and anxieties that by the end of the phone call, I’d said yes. I’m glad I did.

Joining the WBA? circle gave me the chance to collaborate with Roy—and Steve, Josh, Chris, Nelson, Susan, Ellen, and Pennee. This was a project that highlighted Roy’s intellectual and technological creativity and his amazing ability to find humor in the midst of crisis and chaos. As we await publication of the third edition, I still expect an email from Roy to pop up in my inbox. (I’ve studied the nineteenth-century “spiritual telegraph,” and if anyone can get it to work, it’s Roy.) Like so many of us, it’s hard for me to think about a world without Roy. But then we don’t quite have to since he’s still present in so many places—in books and websites and digital archives; in the ways we think about research, writing, and collaboration; in the tools we use to teach; in our commitments to history as politics; and of course, in our hearts.