Reflecting on the Founders Award: perspective from Theodore Karamanski

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2021. Theodore Karamanski writes on behalf of the Loyola Public History Program, winner of the 2021 Founders Award.

A smiling man with light-tan skin, wearing a blue shirt and a baseball cap stands on a platform overlooking a waterfall

Theodore Karamanski   Image credit: the author

We are all products of history. That is especially true of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the history organization with the strangest name. Would it not make more sense if we were named the North American Public History Association?

The name we have came about because of two parallel visions of what public history would become. To Robert Kelley and G. Wesley Johnson at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the graduate program they created in the late 1970s was part of a new field of history. This was a sentiment shared by my colleagues at Loyola University when we created a similar program in Chicago. It was a natural response by historians in an era that saw many new fields flourish, such as women’s history, Black history, and environmental history. Yet, there was another, more missionary impulse that motivated the founders of NCPH. We saw ourselves as reforming the historical profession, reorienting the research and service of most historians (to use a phrase from that time) from the “academy to the agora.” By this, we meant from the university to the public space, rooted in the idea of the Greek marketplace. Alas, in retrospect we were more successful at creating a field than reforming a discipline. To reform the discipline of history would have normalized the public practice of history, perhaps to the point that it would be as required in universities as the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service.

Musing on this subject reawakens memories of my first NCPH conference, the 1980 conference in Pittsburgh. A few months before, I had given a paper at a public history session at the American Historical Association’s conference in Washington, DC, which provided an opportunity to meet a number of the early leaders in the public history movement and learn of the upcoming Pittsburgh meeting hosted by Carnegie Mellon University. Compared to NCPH meetings today, the setting in Pittsburgh was intimate. I gave a paper on cultural resource management in one of a small number of sessions and was thrilled when Wes Johnson, editor of The Public Historian, asked if I would submit it for publication. The fun of the conference was meeting new people and seeing again Alan Alpert and Richard Zeitlin, whom I had met a few months before at other conferences. I remember we joked that so many young historians had this look on their faces as if they were ready to start singing, “I was lost and now I am found.”

At some point, Wes Johnson announced that a “National Council of Public History” was going to be organized and that all attendees were invited to participate in selecting issues and nominating individuals to the council. The council was to be like the American Council of Learned Societies, which advocates for humanities scholarship and is made up of representatives of constituent organizations. All conference attendees were then invited to select the area of public history practice that most interested them. I recall there were rooms set aside for historians involved in academic programs, federal government agencies, archives, oral history, consulting, and perhaps others. I went to the consulting group, even though I was then working at Loyola University, because I was only on a soon-to-expire one-year contract and I had spent the year before doing contract work. In our working group,  we hashed out issues that affected consulting historians. I was particularly outspoken about how the cultural resources contracts were overly dominated by archaeologists, most of whom had little experience doing historical research. It must have sounded convincing because when it came time for our group to nominate someone to the newly formed National Council, I was selected.

Later, maybe the next evening, the council met for the first time. As I recall there were a dozen or so present around a table. I was feeling really good until the first order of business came up. The National Council needed a budget to do its work, so Wes Johnson suggested every member write a check for $100 (about $350 today). Barely out of graduate school I was shocked and glad I did not have to explain the check to a spouse at that point. Phillip Cantelon was then nominated and approved as the first executive director of the council. After discussing the issues raised by the different interest groups it was suggested we adjourn for dinner.

Cantelon was always the most epicurean of the founders of NCPH and he suggested a restaurant at the top of Mt. Washington and overlooking the “Golden Triangle.” I was pretty intimidated since I was a good 15-20 years younger than anyone else. But as we ascend the historic funicular car up the mountain conversation buzzed from one history topic to the next. I did face a crisis at dinner. After the entrée but before dessert, the server at the elegant, white-tablecloth restaurant put in front of each of us a bowl with a large lemon slice floating in clear warm liquid. “Well, what do we have here,” thought the lad born and raised on the southside of Chicago. I was reaching for a soup spoon when I noticed others putting their hands in the bowl! I took the hint when a black-tied waiter handed me a towel and I took my first and only dip into a finger bowl.

As we walked through the night to the hotel, I felt excited and relieved. Excited to be part of something so new, worthwhile, and full of promise. Relieved that I had not tasted the finger bowl.

~ Theodore J. Karamanski, Ph.D. is professor of history and director of the public history program at Loyola University Chicago. He was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the National Council on Public History and NCPH president from 1989-1990 His public history work includes historic preservation, oral history, museums, and litigation support. He is the author of ten books all of which originated as public history projects as well as numerous technical reports and articles. His most recent book is Mastering the Inland Seas: How Lighthouses, Navigational Aids, and Harbors Transformed the Great Lakes and America (2020).

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