Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Center for Virginia History, 1988-2005

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Center for Virginia History, 1988-2005

Article excerpt

History is too important to leave to the historians, too important to leave in the classroom. Once you adopt the idea that history can be shared in a meaningful way . . . the possibilities are unlimited.

Daniel P. Jordan

When he met with the search committee appointed to find a new director in 1988, Charles F. Bryan, Jr., described for the members in plain words his vision of what the Virginia Historical Society could be. He outlined the steps needed to achieve that vision and also told the trustees that if that was not the direction they wanted to go, he was not their man.1 Aware that the VHS was floundering ten years after the departure of John Jennings, the trustees began to see answers to the questions they had been wrestling with for a decade-what direction should the society take, and who would lead it? The results proved to be far beyond what either Bryan or the board of trustees saw that day in spring 1988, the transformation of a somnolent research library into the Center for Virginia History and the emergence of the Virginia Historical Society as one of the premier historical societies in the country.

The board, or at least a significant portion of it, already knew it wanted to open the VHS up, to introduce more exhibitions, and to create an educational program. Donald Haynes had been hired for that purpose, and he had taken a few small steps in that direction. With his death, the society under an interim director marked time, and the board now looked for someone who not only wanted to reach out but also knew how to do it and wanted to make it the prime business of the organization.

Following Haynes's death, the board put together a search committee that included Daniel P. Jordan, formerly a professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University who had recently been named director of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operated Jefferson's home at Monticello. The board wanted to make sure that the new director had good scholarly credentials and asked Jordan to see if he could find some names for them to consider. Jordan immediately thought of Charles Cullen, then head of the Newberry Library in Chicago, and called him. When Cullen said he had no interest in leaving the Newberry, Jordan said, "Can you give me just one name?" Cullen suggested Charles F. Bryan, Jr., the director of the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, Missouri. Jordan had never heard of Bryan, who was not related to the Bryan family long associated with the society's leadership, but he started to check him out and before long believed that he would be a viable candidate. Bryan held a Ph.D. in history, was a published author, and although a Tennesseean, had Virginia roots and had been educated at the Virginia Military Institute. Most important, at both the East Tennessee Historical Society and then at the Mercantile Library, Bryan had shown that he knew how to reach out and get the public involved.2

At the East Tennessee Historical Society, which he directed from 1982 to 1986, Bryan had secured grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct community history projects involving amateur historians and scholars. "We went out into ten counties and said we want you to take one period in your history and we will train you in historical research," he told a reporter. The eras ranged from the Civil War to the depression. "People got totally involved in finding out what happened to the schools, what happened to the churches. History came alive for them to such an extent that they wanted to go on and write additional books."3

Bryan had initially been reluctant to come to Richmond for an interview. He had made his own calls, and several of his colleagues had told him about the society's troubles and warned him away. But Milton Klein, one of his professors at the University of Tennessee, told Bryan he should go for an interview. If he did not like what he saw, he did not have to take the job. Klein, however, thought there were possibilities at the VHS and that Bryan ought to see for himself. …

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