Friday, September 13, 2013

Sheldon Hackney, R.I.P.

Several outlets are reporting the death of Sheldon Hackney, a college president and historian of the South.  He was 79.

Hackney was a student of C. Vann Woodward at Yale.  He is known among historians for his Albert J. Beveridge Award-winning Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (1969).  He also served stints as president of Tulane University (1975-1980) and the University of Pennsylvania (1981-1993) and as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1993-1997).  At the time of his death he was the Boies Professor of United States History at Penn.

I will always remember Hackney for the kindness he showed to me early in my career.  I met him during my years as a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at Penn (then known at the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies).  On one Fall evening in 1998 Hackney and his wife invited PCEAS director Richard Dunn and all of the dissertation fellows to dinner at his home in an upscale Philadelphia neighborhood. (I believe that the invitation came shortly after Hackney returned to teaching at Penn).  Dunn told us to expect some good southern food and the Hackneys did not disappoint. I only chatted with Hackney for ten or fifteen minutes that night, but he took a real interest in my work.

About five years later I sat on a panel with Hackney at Messiah College.  He was on hand to help us inaugurate Boyer Hall, which at the time was a new building on campus.  The college put together an opening panel on the humanities that included Hackney and some Messiah College faculty.  I can't remember anything I said on that afternoon, but I do remember two things about Hackney's appearance. First, he remembered me from our conversation we had in his home in Philadelphia. Second, Hackney's lecture focused on the power of classic American texts, including Franklin's Autobiography and Frederick Douglass's Narrative.  I was particularly thrilled that he chose these texts because I was using both of them (along with Paine's Common Sense) in my U.S. survey course.

These were my only two encounters with Sheldon Hackney, but I found him to be a real southern gentleman.

Here a few early obituaries:

Martha's Vineyard Magazine

New Orleans Times-Picayune

Twitter tributes starting to roll in