Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thank you, Dr. Donald

Imagine you’re in a room with a hundred or so other people – many of them leading Lincoln scholars – and you have in front of you a panel of three of the top. One has written nearly 30 books to date and isn’t even close to stopping, another is a young academic and author in the early years of his career, but already far more knowledgeable about the subject at hand than others who are much older, and the third is the patriarch of living Lincoln scholars.

They’ve gathered to celebrate the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) – to honor the man whose life and legacy have consumed so much of their own lives and helped to create their own legacies. The three are gathered on a panel moderated by the C-SPAN legend Brian Lamb – a panel brought together to share the perspectives of three generations of Lincoln scholars. The scholars’ names – Harold Holzer, Matthew Pinsker and David Herbert Donald.

Dr. Donald passed away Sunday, May 17, at age 88. I don’t want to believe it, but it must be true. I read it on the New York Times book page.

I can tell you what you’ll read anywhere – that Dr. Donald’s 1995 “Lincoln” was among the most comprehensive single volume Lincoln biographies for years, only to be surpassed by recent works accessing scholarship not available when he did his research.

I can tell you he’s a link in the long chain of Lincoln scholars - that the work of Ida Tarbell, which inspired Donald’s mentor James G. Randall of the University of Illinois, then Donald, lives on today in the lives of those he’s mentored, like Pinsker and Jean H. Baker and others whose names evade me at 5 a.m.

I can tell you he’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author.

I can tell you he held a place of honor and respect in a community of brilliant men and women who share a common bond, even when their opinions differ, who support each other through years of research, who just understand the chord that ties them and can with one look across the aisle in a crowded symposium venue say, “Yep, that’s just what I was thinking.”

Even more, though, I can tell you that just thinking of this man and what he’s meant to my life brings tears to my eyes. In 2005, when I attended the opening celebrations of the ALPLM, I was just another Lincoln enthusiast who had long awaited the opening of the museum honoring our most popular president, my state’s favorite son. I’d admired Lincoln as long as I could remember. I knew about as much about him as any other very amateur history enthusiast and a little more than most Illinois residents, but not much. I was seeking something, not sure where it would take me, and I felt deep down that the answer lie in the sixteenth President.

There was a question and answer session at the end of the panel. I had the opportunity to address Holzer, Pinsker and Donald and my question was something like this, “Do you think someone breaking into the Lincoln community at this stage of life can do significant work on Lincoln, and what advice do you have for them?”

Though the generations separated this 80-something scholar and his 50- and 30-something counterparts, they were unanimous in their answers, “Read, attend scholarly events, surround yourselves with others who share your passion.”

I have, and my one regret is that I don’t know if Dr. Donald knew how much it has changed my life. I wrote a thank you note last Thanksgiving, on my favorite Lincoln note cards. I told Dr. Donald about this blog, thanked him for his encouragement and wished him well. But, I didn’t mail it. I’m not sure why. Maybe I thought just having a Lincoln blog wasn’t enough. Maybe I wanted to be able to say, “Dr. Donald, look, I did it. I wrote my own Lincoln biography.”

Someday, I will. And, you can believe you’ll read his name in the acknowledgements.

For now, I say, thank you, Dr. Donald. Your scholarship, your kind gentle ways, and your encouragement to a middle-aged woman in pursuit of her dreams will continue to inspire me until my name, too, is etched on an obituary page.

My sympathy goes out to Dr. Donald’s wife, his son Bruce and family, and his other family – the legion of scholars who’ve lost their Lincoln dad. He will be missed.

Read more
Here are others’ accounts of Dr. Donald’s life and legacy.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.

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