Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In memoriam

I found out yesterday that Bert Rhoads had passed away. Many people might know Bert as the AOTUS (Archivist of the US) during the Nixon administration, but to me and a number of people he was also our first archival educator, guide, and mentor.

If I'm a decent archivist, a huge percentage of that is due to Bert Rhoads. (If I'm not, that's on me.) I am enough of an archivist to know that the snapshot of two years spent taking classes and meeting with him is hardly representative of his life as a whole, but the man I first met in the summer of '91 was a kind, positive, encouraging, funny, and highly intelligent educator, archivist, and gentleman.

One of my favorite class memories was the day he was lecturing about forms management. Now this is not normally an entrancing subject, none of us were gripped, and Bert was clearly in "read only" mode as he went through his lecture notes. All of us were madly taking down notes (or possibly daydreaming) when Bert read a sentence that began "It goes without saying." And he stopped there. It took a few seconds for us to figure out he had stopped speaking and once all eyes were upon him, he looked up at us, back down at his script, back up at us and said "Well, I guess it doesn't." Followed by much laughter and much more engagement--from all of us--with the topic. And while I don't remember details of a lot of the daily classes, the forms management one stuck with me. I use it a lot more than I ever thought I would in my daily work life. And the whole incident taught me a little bit about using cliched phrases in writing and speaking, too.

One of my best memories of Bert and his wife Angela comes not from a professional interaction, but a social one. My second year of grad school, I was sharing an apartment with another grad student in the cohort just after mine. We lived next door to another grad student from my cohort and his wife. We decided to host a Halloween party for fellow grad students in the archives program and invited Bert and Angela. They came and spent several hours with us that evening. We were hanging out in the apartment next door, all the food was in mine, and people just wandered back and forth as they wanted to retrieve munchies. I'd made snickerdoodles mostly because I had all the ingredients for them and didn't have to go shopping on my very limited budget.

After a while a pattern became evident. Every 15 minutes or so, Bert would get up, wander next door, and come back with a snickerdoodle or two in his hand. Eventually Angela noticed and said [I paraphrase here] "What is up with you and those cookies?" Bert replied: "I love snickerdoodles." While she just stared at him he added: "They're my favorite cookie and you never make them." As the discussion ensued (I use the gentlest possible term for the conversation) it came out that Angela had never made Bert snickerdoodles because he'd never mentioned to her how much he loved them. Keep in mind that they'd been married over 45 years at that point.

I have no idea if Angela started making snickerdoodles for Bert (I couldn't blame her if she never did) but after that, every time I had a class presentation I made a point of bringing them in. I'm pretty sure it didn't affect my grades.

I didn't have a lot of interaction with Bert after I finished up my coursework at Western. He retired, actually retired, a couple of years later. I struggled, a lot, post-school with writing a thesis while juggling 2-3 jobs, none of which had anything much in the way of leave benefits. Several times I thought about just chucking the whole degree thing. At some point I must have said something about that to someone who was in a position to tattle to Bert. And he wrote me one of the most encouraging letters I've ever received. I didn't have the wherewithal to pull it out last night and re-read it, but the short version is that he told me that while he understood my frustration, my potential was such that it would be a pity if I didn't finish the degree. It was enough. I couldn't bear to disappoint him (though he certainly never phrased it that way) and I figured if this guy, this man who had withstood everything Richard M. Nixon had done to recordkeeping, thought I had something, I should probably trust his instincts.

I only had one interaction with Bert after that. A number of years later, after I'd finished my thesis and gotten an actual professional rank job, I had the occasion to call him as a member of a search committee to obtain a reference for a job candidate who had taken classes with him. It all started out as a standard, uniformative pro forma type of reference check, when Bert got honest. I won't tell you what Bert said about our candidate, but in one sentence he dissected the candidate's entire personality vis a vis professional maturity. It wasn't judgmental, it wasn't damning, it was just a clear statement of who this person was at this time and made it clear to us that this individual wouldn't be a good fit right now. I still wonder if Bert would have said that if it was anybody but me on the other end of the line. I guess I'll never know, now, but that doesn't matter. All I know is that every time I conduct a reference check, I pray I'll be talking to somebody with his vision, his understanding, his thoughtfulness, his clarity, his honesty, and his caring, both for me and for the candidate.

We've lost what I can only regard as one of the pillars of our profession and an all around great guy. I grieve with my fellow Western grads, I grieve with his family.

And yes, I made a batch of snickerdoodles last night and brought them into work today (at least one other of Bert's grads can indulge.) It seemed a good way to remember him.

Rest in peace, Bert. I miss you.