Well, it’s now been four weeks since I was at the White House to accept the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the American Antiquarian Society, and I can’t say that I’ve yet got my feet back on terra firma. And with cards, letters, calls, emails, and Facebook comments continuing to stream in — from AAS members, fellows, friends, neighbors (and from a host of my relatives) — it isn’t likely that my excitement will end any time soon. So excuse me while I wallow a bit more in these “15 minutes of fame.”
From the moment that we were able to share the news (which was initially embargoed by the White House), I have made every effort to remind everyone that this award is for the Society, not for me. It represents the thanks of a nation for more than two hundred years of our collective effort to “safeguard the American story” and our success at “connecting generations of Americans to their cultural heritage.” As I stood there next to the President as our citation (see right) was read, I opened the floodgates of my memory and tried to think of every person who has played a part in assembling these collections, in preserving and making them accessible, and in engaging a broad constituency to appreciate and utilize these amazing resources. I was so honored to be there to represent each and every person who has help to build AAS into the great institution it is today.
But, at the same time, I was just Ellen — a (now middle-aged) girl from Texas — who was thrilled beyond belief just to be going to the White House. At the glitzy black-tie dinner the night before, I got to hear Morgan Freeman read a script about each of the humanities medal winners; his melodious voice as he spoke about the American Antiquarian Society brought a lump to my throat. The next morning, I took advantage of the panel presentation at the National Endowment for the Humanities offices to thank the assembled staff for all their support over the decades, totaling more than $14.9 million in 83 separate multi-year grant awards. I could say without exaggeration that we wouldn’t be the organization that we are without the investment they have made in us. I also had no trouble in answering the question posed to each of the medalists on the panel by NEH chairman William “Bro” Adams: Who is the single person who
most inspires your work? Even 179 years after his untimely death, Christopher Columbus Baldwin continues to motivate each of us on the staff to give our all to the AAS. I particularly enjoyed quoting a passage from William Lincoln’s address to the memory of his fallen friend, in which he recalled how Baldwin opened the library to scholars and “the casual visitant” and how his “ease and urbanity rendered the visit delightful to the learned and unlettered alike. Each found a communicative and courteous attendant, overflowing with pleasant narrative and peculiar learning, and few departed without finding their agreeable companion had enticed away their precious authors from their shelves, the neglected treasures from their garrets, and the good will from their hearts.” And it remains our goal to this day for every reader and visitor to leave the library not only with answers to all their research questions, but also with those same charitable feelings.
As we passed through security at the White House that afternoon, I found myself in line next to the amazing Linda Ronstadt (who remembered fondly her 2005 visit to the AAS when she looked through our great collection of sheet music). And once inside, I got to speak with the legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones (whose protégé Andrea E. Woods was one of our very first Creative Artist Fellows at the Society, back in 1996). AAS members David Brion Davis (elected 1975) and Anne Firor Scott (elected 1979) were on hand to receive National Humanities Medals of their own, bringing the number of AAS members who have been so honored to more than forty.
Joining me at the White House to represent the AAS were our Council chairman Sid Lapidus and Councilor Bill Reese. Given time before the awards ceremony to roam freely through the first two floors of the mansion, Bill and I immediately set out on a quest. We had heard from a fellow bibliophile that the White House copy of Isaiah Thomas’s two-volume History of Printing in America was in great peril: he had seen one volume shelved on the first floor and the other on the second. Oh, the horror of it! But our worry was for naught, as eagle-eyed Bill quickly spotted the two volumes properly reunited on the top shelf of the first floor library, as you can see to the right.
That crisis now averted, my blood-pressure got another shock when I realized that I’d been seated for the medal ceremony right next to the First Lady. I couldn’t help but post to Facebook a snapshot of our seating placards with a caption of “O.M.G.” And before I knew it, the Marine Band had struck up four quick ruffles and flourishes (lump back in my throat) and with “Hail to the Chief” POTUS and FLOTUS took their places, both mere inches from me.
#1: What did you say to make the President laugh like that and give you such a warm hug/snuggle? Easy answer: I used the same opening line that worked in 2000 when I had just a nano-second to break through the ceremonial ice in a similar meeting with Bill Clinton (a story for a different blog post).
Me: Mr. President, I’m from Worcester, Mass.
President Obama: Worcester is an amazing place. I was just there!! [He had spoken at the Worcester Technical High School commencement on June 11.]
Me: I know! I was among the invited guests and watched you give a hug to every one of those Tech School graduates, and now my daughter thinks I’ve concocted this entire “national medal” thing just to get my own hug from you!
President Obama: [Laughs heartily and gives me the hug I’d dreamed of getting]
After the citation was read, he and I exchanged words again:
President Obama: Thank you for all that the Society does. You have every reason to be proud.
Me: Thank you. And I’m proud, too, that you are my President.
#2: What did you and Mrs. Obama talk about?
- As the ceremony was getting started, she whispered to me, “It’s uplifting events like this one that make all the other ones bearable.”
- As the President went to push the wheelchair of M.H. Abrams, I commented to her what an incredibly kind person her husband is. “Indeed, he is,” she replied.
- Then we joked a bit about how the red ribbons on the humanities medals were a bit too short, but when I wondered whether he would be able to get Diane Rehm’s on over her “big hair,” she assured me that he would (and she was absolutely right).
- And, of course, I invited her to come to AAS on the Obamas’ next visit to Worcester.
#3: “Where did you get those cute red shoes?”