Roy's Hobby""


My friendship with Roy goes back more than a quarter century. We met at the Radical History Review in the late 1970s, where we were both editors, hit it off pretty quickly because we were both interested in non-traditional ways to do history, and decided we’d work together on what would become the Public History issue of the RHR. That volume was our first collaboration and became Presenting the Past, the first book published (in 1986) in the Critical Perspectives on the Past series at Temple University Press that I had the good fortune to co-edit with Roy and the late Susan Porter Benson for twenty years.

When Herb Gutman and I launched the American Social History Project in 1981, Roy was on the first (and every subsequent) directors/advisory/editorial board we set up to help us run ASHP. Roy helped me get the first edition of the Who Built America? textbook finished in 1989 and 1991, in the years after Herb Gutman died. He advised ASHP on every one of our multimedia projects, including films and videos as well as teacher guides and teacher training projects.

We entered the wonderful world of computers together, buying matching Kaypro II computers (which ran the now defunct CPM operating system) in 1982, Roy to do his own academic work and my ASHP colleagues and me to write the WBA? textbook. Our early shared use of computers led us to start poking around the emerging field of computer controlled media in the late 1980s. I was down in Arlington visiting one time in 1989 and Roy and I took the Metro into DC near Union Station to visit a new exhibit of computer controlled training tools and programs that some company or museum was displaying (I remember that one of them focused on training fire fighters). Out of that exposure came the idea that we really wanted to explore the uses of multimedia to do history. We’d been doing films and videos but the computer opened up immense vistas for teaching and learning. Very soon after that (in 1990) I got a call from Bob Stein, who headed a company called Voyager, who said he wanted to turn WBA? into the first electronic textbook and we (meaning ASHP and Roy) were off on the wild Toad’s ride of creating what became the first history CD-ROM, which Voyager published in 1993. That’s the origins of Roy’s (and our) descent (or ascent, depending on your perspective) into the wonderful world of multimedia.

I spent a great deal of time down in Arlington with Roy at the Jackson house in those years writing and thinking about what the WBA? CD-ROM would look like. Sometime in that period (I can’t remember exactly when, but maybe 1992), Deborah, despairing that Roy was never going to do anything other than work all the time on his computer, announced one night at the dinner table that she thought they both needed hobbies, things that would get them to focus on something other than their academic work. She suggested that they both think about what those new hobbies might be and we’d discuss it at dinner in a few nights. I was then witness to the following exchange (this is not a verbatim transcript, but it’s pretty damned close!):

Deborah (brightly): “Well, I’ve thought a lot about what my hobby should be and I’ve decided I’m going to take up gourmet cooking.”

Roy (sitting in uneasy silence):

Deborah (imploringly): “Roy, have you given this some thought? Have you come up with a hobby?”

Roy (hopefully): “Can the computer be my hobby?”

I laugh every time I think about this story. It speaks to Roy’s singlemindedness of purpose and his ridiculous intensity and capacity for work, which everyone who knew him admired and was daunted by. I learned after many years of collaborating with Roy that the best thing to do was sit back and admire that dedication and tenacity (and greatly benefit from it) and never, ever (unless you were a masochist) try to match it or him.

He was and will always be one of a kind, a brilliant, loving, intense, supportive and totally unique human being. He will be missed by all of us for a very long time, in large measure, because there is no one quite like him and never will be. We miss you and we love you, Roy. And, as Mike O’Malley said to me a few days after Roy died, “How are we supposed to get through things without Roy drawing up our To Do lists?”

Steve Brier


Steve Brier, “Roy's Hobby"",” Thanks, Roy, accessed April 21, 2024,

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