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Obituary: Sheldon Hackney

Published in The Vineyard Gazette, September 12, 2013

Sheldon Hackney, a noted historian, humanitarian, academic and longtime Vineyard resident, died Thursday, Sept. 12, at home, surrounded by his family. He was 79. The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mr. Hackney was a respected figure on and off the Vineyard, where he had been coming since the 1960s. “It’s my favorite place on earth,” he told the Gazette in a 1993 interview from his home in Vineyard Haven overlooking the harbor. Born Dec. 5, 1933, in Birmingham, Ala., he graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1955 as a Naval ROTC scholarship student, served in the Navy and went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate in American history from Yale, where he studied under C. Vann Woodward, the pre-eminent historian of the post-Civil War South.

Mr. Hackney was an assistant professor and then a tenured professor of history at Princeton from 1965 until 1972, and then became provost. At Princeton he taught an Upward Bound program for disadvantaged students and was named director of the program. A lifelong proponent of civil rights, he helped start an African American studies program at Princeton.

From 1975 to 1980 he was president of Tulane University in New Orleans.

He was named president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 and served in that position until 1993 when he was tapped by President Bill Clinton to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a position he held from 1993 to 1997. Following that post he returned to Penn, where he served as Boies Professor of U.S. History. In a 2006 interview with the Gazette, he spoke about his conservative Southern upbringing. “My father was Republican,” he recalled. “I can’t explain what happened to me, but from my earliest memory of being aware of racial segregation it seemed wrong. I don’t know where that came from. All the way through high school and college, I was the village radical, at least on race, if not on political systems and economics and that sort of thing.”

In 1957 he married Lucy Durr, the daughter of civil rights activists, then a student at Radcliffe. Their love affair lasted 56 years. They had three children: Virginia, Fain and Elizabeth. Virginia was born with a mental handicap and later lived on the Vineyard. She died of pancreatic cancer six years ago, an event that profoundly changed Mr. Hackney’s life.

The Hackneys began coming to the Vineyard in 1966, eventually buying a house next door to William and Rose Styron in Vineyard Haven. They moved there full-time in 2010 when Mr. Hackney retired from Penn.

He was an active six-year member of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum board and its chairman when the museum decided to acquire the former Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven. He was honored by the museum with a video tribute at last summer’s Evening of Discovery annual event on the grounds of the Marine Hospital.

“He cared about learning, about curiosity. He was a person of the highest integrity,” said Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University who formerly served on the Penn faculty, in the tribute. He was the author of several books including Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (1969), which won the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association and The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memoir of the Culture Wars (2002). In a 1993 statement when he was nominated for the NEH chairmanship, he said: “Among the values I hold dear is a belief that a university ought to be open to all points of view, even if some of those views expressed are personally abhorrent. I take some pride in having protected the right to speak of such diverse controversial figures as Robert Shockley at Princeton, King Hussein of Jordan at Tulane, and Louis Farrakhan at Penn. The university should belong to its members and not be the exclusive domain of any particular person, group or point of view.” Known to his friends as an old-school southern gentleman, Mr. Hackney also was an avid golfer and an excellent tennis player. He quit tennis following a knee replacement but continued to play golf until the onset of ALS made it impossible. His soft-spoken, easygoing manner belied a fierce competitive streak, his son Fain told the Gazette. “He hated to lose at anything, whether it was golf or tennis or a board game with his children or grandchildren. If you beat him at anything you knew you had earned it.”

But beyond the golf course, Mr. Hackney’s favorite place was his study, where he would spend countless quiet hours reading, writing and exchanging emails.

And he was a poet who wrote spare, pensive verse for family members and others. Three of his poems were read at a graveside service held last week. In a Thanksgiving poem published in the Gazette in 2010 he wrote in part:

We’re searching still for ways to reconcile
The selfish side of greed indulged
And chances for all ranks of men,
In this open land.
So we’re not there,
Wherever there may be.
Like Lincoln, though, I’m sure it’s true
Our search itself is what must last,
In this freedom land.

He served on the vestry of Grace Episcopal Church.

When the news of Mr. Hackney’s death was first reported late last week, many who knew him offered tributes to the Gazette. One came from former President Bill Clinton.

“Hillary and I were saddened by the passing of Sheldon Hackney. He was a brilliant writer, scholar, educator, historian and an outstanding chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during my administration. But we will remember him most of all as a good man who adored his family and cherished his friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with Lucy and his entire family,” President Clinton wrote.

“He never really lost that quality of being at once a man of letters and a very decent and caring individual,” said Ron Gault.

“He was an extraordinary academician, the gold standard for educational leadership, and he was my friend,” said Vernon Jordan, a lawyer and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Hackney were both awarded medals by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in August.

“When Sheldon talked about American history and identity, he didn’t shy away from the less-than-glowing parts of our history,” said Betty Burton, director of programs at the Vineyard Haven Library, where Mr. Hackney gave numerous talks through the years. “If ever there lived a man who embodied the notion of the humanities, it was Sheldon,” she added.

“We are all so sad this afternoon, losing our close, close friend and neighbor the gallant, brilliant loving Sheldon Hackney,” Rose Styron told the Gazette on the day of his death.

“In the end I will think of him as a history professor,” his son Fain wrote. “That was his passion. He always taught a course even when he was the president of Tulane and Penn. He loved the relationships he developed with certain students. He loved to mentor young men and women. He was constantly being asked to meet with and write recommendations for high school students looking for entry to Penn or Tulane and he always made time for those meetings and letters. He began and ended his career as a teacher and that is the way it should have been.” In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth McBride; three brothers, Morris, Rob and John; and eight grandchildren. His daughter Virginia predeceased him in 2007. A graveside service was held at the West Chop cemetery on Sept. 15. A memorial celebration is being planned for a future date in Philadelphia.