Remembering Roy Rosenzweig

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.

14 replies on “Remembering Roy Rosenzweig”

  1. Heartbreaking…

    Though I am but a lowly Public History M.A. student who never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Rosenzweig in person, I cannot help but feel a huge loss. My current research into the history of digital history has now taken on new meaning. So very sad, and to think I was getting ready to e-mail him. My condolences to you Mills, and everyone who was luckier than I to have known him.

  2. Losing Roy is a loss to all of us in the field of digital history but most especially to those of you who worked so closely with him. His generous spirit was apparent to those far and wide and we will all miss him as a person and as a digital historian who made it possible for many of us to have the career paths we have now that are beyond the realm of possibilities we were exposed to in graduate school.

  3. Graciously put, Mills. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend, Roy. I never had the opportunity to actually speak with Roy, but he seemed like such a wonderful person brimming with ideas and generosity. I wish the best for his family and all those who were fortunate enough to be graced by his presence.

    Take Care,

  4. Mills,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings about Roy. It’s helping me get through the day.


  5. Even thought I had not met Roy Rosenzweig in person, our professor Mills Kelly made us feel as if we had known him (Roy) for a long time. It was because of him that this school got $8 million in grants and, played key role for creating professionalism in digital history. He made everything possible. There should be at least some kind of dedication to him. He will be missed, greatly. We wish the best for his family.

  6. I knew Roy moderately well but enough to agree that its hard to imagine the world without him. His boyish face looks out to me from that picture of him. To me he was the embodiment of his generation of American historians: professionally impeccable and yet selfless, never forgetting that to be a historian was a privilege, a way to serve, a contribution to enlightened, progressive citizenship, and not a personal career to advance through competition and diva-behavior. I hope that somehow, somewhere, there will be a prize in his honor on behalf of digital history.

  7. Like others, Roy simply changed my professional world, and in so doing, changed my entire world. I met Roy in 1997 as part of the New Media Classroom project sponsored by ASHP. It’s hard to imagine it was less than 10 years ago, but there we were with cd-roms, dial-up, only a smattering of archival sites, but we had Roy’s vision. At the time, I was a high school history teacher, but always felt that Roy would listen to my questions, concerns and ideas. I only hope he knew how many teachers he affected, and in a truly Henry Adams sense, how students lives he has changed. Thank you Roy; go in peace.

  8. I met Roy more than twenty years ago, and I have valued my connection with him, which was more professional than personal. Yet it was unavoidably personal because Roy was so genuine and responsive. Every time we were together I felt the personal warmth and the integrity. There was something else: Roy was one of those rare persons who offered more than he demanded, who gave more than he took. His contributions of the profession and our civic life were an act of generosity, but also invaluable. We shall all miss him.

  9. I am writing in response to your moving tribute to Professor Rosenzweig on your blog. I am greatly saddened by the loss.

    I had the privilege of meeting Professor Rosenzweig at a roundtable discussion at Emory University a few years ago. on the topic of digital scholarship. My dissertation adviser, Prof. Allen Tullos, who knew him, had told me about his work with digital scholarship.

    I spoke with him briefly afterwards about some of my research interests in history and new media, and he asked me to send him a copy of an article I had written about how Indian communities were rewriting historical narratives in cyberspace. He responded to it with kind and encouraging words, and offered some very helpful suggestions about similar revisionist histories in the American context. Based on his suggestions, I had planned to work on a piece comparing cyber-revisionist histories in Indian and American contexts, and to consult him about it. The pressure of academic deadlines meant that I did not get around to it, however.

    From that one meeting, and brief email exchange, I remember his incredible kindness and generosity. I circulated his article about Wikipedia extensively. and discussed it in many of my undergraduate classes. In fact, just two weeks ago, I mentioned it in my media studies classes. His pathbreaking work has been inspirational to me.

  10. To know Roy was to love him. That’s for sure. But those who knew him also benefited from his generous vision of how to do history in new ways. He changed my life twice. As a graduate student at Harvard in 1973-74 he worked as my research assistant when, as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, I was preparing to teach women’s history from a social history perspective. Roy located systematic data about everything from contraception to ordination and then translated it to plastic sheets for overhead display. He was like an angel from heaven who made it possible for me to believe in women’s history in new ways. Then in 1997, as a fellow panelist to review proposals for material to be put on the American Memory project, Roy encouraged me to do something about the underrepresentation of women’s history online. I wasn’t even on email at the time, but he gave me the courage to experiment with a website on women and social movements. What a blessing he has been to the history profession. How very sad to lose him so soon.

  11. Unfortunately, I was never able to take a class with or meet Roy personally, but I have been moved by the “wake of his loss”. More than any of his accomplishments in history or digital media, I have been taken with how profoundly he left his impression on the lives of those around him.

    My thoughts to his friends and family. I am sorry for the loss of your friend, Professor Kelly.

  12. I knew Roy when we were high school students at neighboring high schools, and then we were classmates at Columbia College. He was always friendly, helpful, of good cheer, intelligent and with a sense of humor. The world’s loss.

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