Yesterday we lost one of the greatest historians and greatest humans I’ll ever have the privilege to know. My colleague and friend Roy Rosenzweig passed away, surrounded by his family yesterday afternoon. Although I’ve known for a while that this was going to happen, I still can’t imagine the world without Roy.
I first met Roy through his words. In the late 1980s was a PhD student at George Washington University and signed up for a course in American labor history, not because I have a great interest in the field, but because it fit my schedule. I only remember one book that I read that semester (I’m sure the others were good as well) and that was Roy’s Eight Hours for What We Will. That book was so good, I actually re-read it after the semester, just so I could enjoy it a second time, and it remains one of the few volumes of American history to have survived on the few bookshelves I can cram into my office here at George Mason.
I didn’t actually meet Roy for another decade. When I first became interested in how digital media might be transforming student learning in history courses in the late 1990s, the only historian’s work that really spoke to my interests and concerns was Roy’s. Somehow I found my way to the first website of the Center for History and New Media and was very impressed by the work that Roy and his colleagues at George Mason were doing. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that someday I would be named the Associate Director of the Center.
But in the fall of 2000 I saw an ad in Perspectives for a senior digital historian at Mason. The ad had a very short closing date, so rather than applying, I called Roy directly to find out what was going on with the search and whether I, a mere untenured assistant professor, might be considered for the position.
That was the first time I ever spoke to Roy and in many ways it sums up his most defining characteristic–his generosity. Instead of telling me that he couldn’t really give me many details of the search process, he took a good half an hour to explain, in detail, what was happening with that particular search. He very gently told me that, no, I could not be considered for that position, because the department had been given permission to make a senior hire and so they really needed to hire someone already tenured. But then he told me that the department had a second search going on–for a Western Civilization Coordinator–and that I really should apply for that, since much of my work in the scholarship of teaching and learning had been focused on my Western Civ courses. He also gave me a number of useful hints about how to pitch my letter of application to the search committee.
Those who knew Roy well know that he was almost never without a cup of coffee. Well, when I had my AHA interview, Roy was there–it was in a hotel room and the committee members mostly sat on the edges of the beds while I sat in a chair. Five minutes into the interview, Roy kicked over his cup of coffee that he had set on the floor, and we all spent a few minutes cleaning up. I remember thinking that the next person to interview would wonder what in the world had happened to the carpet in that room!
When I came to campus, it was Roy who really sold me on the job at Mason. After a full day of interviewing, he drove me to dinner with several future colleagues and asked me what he could do to help convince me to take the job. The fact that Roy wanted me to work here was the final straw–there was no way I could say no after that.
That was in 2001. For the past six years I have been one of literally dozens and dozens of beneficiaries of Roy’s guidance, friendship, counseling, support, and great good humor. None of the work in digital humanities that I have done since arriving here would have been possible without all of those things I received from Roy. He had so many good ideas, so many helpful suggestions, such an incredible work ethic, that everyone who was anywhere nearby got better just by being in his general vicinity.
During my first semester here, our then department chair, now dean Jack Censer told me once, “Don’t stand too close to Roy.” When I asked why, he said, “Because you’ll get pulled along in his wake and no one but Roy is capable of doing all the things he does in any given day.” Jack, who has known Roy since forever, was absolutely right. No one but Roy is capable of doing all that he did.
Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but I think it is no exaggeration to claim that Roy invented Digital History as a field of serious scholarly endeavor. Before Roy got involved I’m sure there were others who were playing around with what digital media might mean to our professional practice. But it was Roy who made Digital History into a professional field. For that alone, the profession and many subsequent generations of history students will be forever indebted to this great man.
For myself, I will be inspired by his example for the rest of my life. I know that as long as I’m fortunate enough to be on this earth I will try to live up to the standard that Roy set. And I know that I’ll always fall short.
Roy, I’ll miss you more than I can ever express.