Remembering Dr. William J. Murtagh: Keeper of the Register, Preservation Pioneer

(NOTE:  My appreciation of the life and legacy of William J. Murtagh was first published on the Preservation Forum Blog on November 2, 2018.)

Bill Murtagh, who passed away on October 28 at age 95, was among the most visible and effective preservation leaders in the middle of the 20th century, when the movement was expanding its focus from historic sites, museums, and teaching to the emphasis on people and community that we recognize today.

To those of us who came to preservation in the 1970s and ’80s, Bill was seemingly in the middle of everything. He served two stints at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, first as President Richard Howland’s assistant in 1958, later returning for several years as vice president for Preservation Services. He was a member of the committee that outlined the principles at the core of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. He was a key figure in the establishment and growth of preservation education programs from Columbia University to the University of Hawai‘i. His “Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America” was one of our first textbooks.

murtagh__002_.jpg
Credit: Lisa Berg

But it was as the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places that Bill is best known, and that is where he made such an indelible mark on the field. First, the job title itself was evocative, and Bill worked to live up to the lofty aspirations it suggested. More importantly, he brought a democratic and expansive view of what the federal government should recognize as worthy of preservation. Where others may have been stingy in recognizing the places that matter to communities, Bill approached people on the local level to help them identify places and articulate the meaning of those places to tell the full American story.

This generous view of what makes America unique is what I remember from first meeting Bill Murtagh while working as a preservationist in Virginia in the 1980s. Bill, who had enormous national and international influence, worked tirelessly with his neighbors to ensure that the historic buildings, landscapes, and streetscapes of Alexandria, Virginia, were preserved, protected, and loved. He also served on the board of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, providing instant credibility as we advocated for the importance of historic places to the commonwealth’s economy and future.

Bill was always looking forward. In the fall 1999 issue of the Forum Journal, he took the time to contemplate what preservation would look like in this century, calling for renewal, retraining, and recommitment.

The National Historic Preservation Act is now more than a generation old. A renewed commitment to human resources is still needed. In my considered opinion, that includes retraining existing professionals and improving the training of newcomers to the field even in many of the programs that now exist in academia. … Of primary concern is that there now seems to be a thin or non-interested grasp at all levels of government as to why our 20th-century preservation laws even exist and to what stimulated their passage. Preservation concerns still need to be part of the curriculum at the preparatory school level. ‘Civics 101’ needs to be reintroduced into school systems.

Bill was ever hopeful for the day when America would have a national land-use policy and a cabinet-level post of cultural affairs to help recognize and protect our heritage for future generations. He encouraged us all to think about what mattered in our communities—and to find ways for the private and public sectors to protect and reuse those places. We all stand on his shoulders, and he will be missed.

More to come…

DJB

Have the Courage to Change Your Mind

By the time I first met John Buchanan, he had finished his eight terms in the U.S. Congress as a Republican representing Birmingham, Alabama. This third generation Baptist minister was long past the time when he was targeted for defeat in 1980 by the Moral Majority.  He was even past his term as the founding chairman of the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way.  When I met John and his wife Betty in the 1990s, they were the loving and selfless grandparents to a granddaughter who was in a youth group with our twins.  However, their intellect, courage, sense of public service, and generous spirit were still very much in evidence in everything they touched.

Congressman John Buchanan

The Honorable John H. Buchanan, Jr. (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Betty died in 2011, and I was thinking about our connections and their lives after I heard the news of John’s passing on March 5th at the age of 89.  John had the courage to change his mind, even at the cost of his political future.  First elected in the Republican wave of 1964, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, John began as a conventional Southern conservative.  But Ellie Silverman’s obituary in the Washington Post described the changes that took place in John over time.

“At first, Mr. Buchanan had a conservative record and voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but his experience at the biracial Riverside Baptist Church in Southwest Washington led to a shift in his views.

‘When you’re deeply involved in a biracial entity, you think of people as brothers and sisters,’ he told The Washington Post in 1976. ‘Then the denial of rights of my brothers and sisters becomes an infringement of my rights as well.’”

As he moved away from his traditional political orthodoxy on civil rights issues, John supported landmark legislation such as Title IX, which required equality for women in college and university programs, including sports, and he called for full voting rights for residents of Washington, D.C.  The irony of having this Baptist minister — the son and grandson of Baptist ministers — successfully targeted for defeat by the Moral Majority was not lost on many who knew him.

I’ve quoted the writer Maria Popova before, who suggested that we should allow ourselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind.  In John’s case, changing his mind was more than an uncomfortable luxury. It was courageous and — because he acted on his convictions — it came with consequences.  However, as with many difficult decisions which are based on the stories we tell of our American past and how we treat our fellow citizens, the effect can be liberating. Silverman describes the effect on John in her obituary.

“’I’ve become more emancipated as I’ve gone along,’ Mr. Buchanan said in 1976, describing the evolution of his political views.  ‘I’m at the point in my political career where I’d rather lose . . . than fail to do what I think is right. I won’t compromise on civil rights any more. I can’t do it, I will not do it.’”

All of us face our own challenges in work and life.  It is good to be reminded that we can follow the example of those who have gone before and have the courage to change our minds when that’s the right thing to do.

Rest in Peace, John H. Buchanan, Jr.

DJB

Memories

Helen Roberts Brown

Helen Roberts Brown – Mom

For the past two decades, New Year’s Day has had memories of loss mixed in with the anticipation of the coming year.  Mother passed away on January 1, 1998, and while a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of her, the memories are especially poignant on New Year’s Day.

Thankfully, mother’s life left many legacies in her family, her church, and her community.  Mom’s love of family never changed and was unconditional. She loved each one of us as individuals who had unique gifts and ways to serve. The lives lived by her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (who she never met) and in-laws are part of her legacy. Her commitment to her faith and her church was just as strong.  She was a life-long reader (as was my father) and she shared that love through her decades of service at church libraries in Tennessee.  She also believed in the power of women in the church, and became the first female deacon at First Baptist in Murfreesboro.  Mom served her communities in so many ways, from PTA president to her years as the children’s librarian for the city.  Mom’s commitment to reading and education was one reason the Helen Brown Scholarship Fund was established by her family at First Baptist Church.  For two decades now it has helped young people attend college.  Most of them never knew Mom, but they are blessed by her life and legacy.

As we look ahead to 2018, I’m reminded of a few of Mom’s many strengths which will help me face this new year with confidence in the future.

Treat everyone with respect.  This seems old-fashioned after the year of taunts, lies, and slander we’ve endured.  However, it still has meaning today, and Mom lived this value through good times and bad.  She was the PTA president the year our school in Cookeville was desegregated.  Very difficult times.  Mom went through that year with her values leading the way, but with an understanding of the challenges she faced.  I later heard her say that there were never any problems with the children in desegregating the schools, only with the parents.  I am often reminded of that when I speak about others who are different from me.

Be the person you were meant to be.  From their understanding of faith, Mother and Daddy gave us a blessing of unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, release to be the person God intends for us to be, and affirmation and support as we work out our understanding of who we are meant to be.  They both said it out loud, and through their lives.  Their unconditional acceptance also seems old-fashioned in a world where too many are frightened by those who are different, but to me it seems so necessary for our life as family and community.

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad, with their “Helping Hands” aprons made by their grandchildren

Money can’t buy happiness.  Mother and Daddy were never rich in money, but as Mom phrased it, they were rich in love.  Mom would relate to a note from my Dad about money:

MONEY CAN BUY . . .

a bed, but not sleep

books, but not brains

food, but not appetite

finery, but not beauty

medicine, but not health

luxuries, but not culture

amusement, but not happiness

flattery, but not respect

a house, but not a home

companions, but not friends.

No woman of quality has ever preferred football to baseball.  My mom never said this.  The line actually comes from Thomas Boswell’s Why Is Baseball So Much Better Than Football?  But Mom lived this.  She would watch football and basketball, but she loved baseball.  She told stories of going to old Sulphur Dell park with her father to watch the Nashville Vols.  I’ve acquired her love of baseball and have passed it along to my daughter Claire (another woman of quality).  Looking ahead to 2018, she would join me in my optimism for the Nats!

Memories live on.  I once asked the singer-songwriter Claire Lynch if she ever played her tune These Flowers — about remembering a parent who has passed on — in concert.  It was during a mid-set break, and I was hoping to hear this tune, which meant so much to me, live.  She replied that she didn’t play it live because it was too emotional for her.  I told her I understood, and added that I would probably start crying out in the audience.  So when These Flowers came up on my playlist yesterday as I was driving home from dropping Claire (Brown) off at the airport, I — true to form — started crying.

We all gathered round, and stared in the ground,

While the heavens were weeping with rain.

We smiled. We cried. We said good-bye.

And the children made handsome bouquets,

From flowers that lay on your grave.

 

And on the long ride home, in their warm little hands.

The blossoms were withering fast.

So we wrapped them in paper and tucked them in books,

And prayed that the memory would last.

With these flowers.

 

Though time marches on and memories fade,

And flowers surrender their youth.

It’s funny how old pedals pressed on a page,

Brings everything back into view.

 

I still picture you there, in your favorite chair,

With grand-babies held on your knee.

And its hard to believe you’re really gone.

It’s as if we have all been asleep.

What we find when we wake from the dream…

Are these flowers. These flowers.

 

Twenty years later, the memories do fade.  But then something…like New Year’s Day…comes around and everything comes back into view.  Miss you mom. Love.  David

More to come…

DJB

Living at the Intersection of Past, Present, and Future

James K. Huhta

James K. Huhta

(Note:  I made the following remarks at the funeral of Dr. James K. Huhta on Monday, May 8, 2017, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Jim was the founder of the Historic Preservation Program at Middle Tennessee State University, an early mentor in the field, and—along with his wife Mary who died 11 months earlier—a dear friend.)

I thought I would start my remarks with a history joke…but they’re all too old.

Feel free to groan, because I will keep on with the bad puns and jokes if you don’t.  Just as Jim would have done.

In recent days, I have talked with people who knew Jim from all walks of life. We all acknowledge the deep pain of the past year to the family, friends, and this community. But like these friends and colleagues, I want to reflect today on his many accomplishments and his impact on others, before the inexplicable challenges of recent years became too much for him to bear.

Several people recounted how Jim’s optimism for the future set them on a path which they only now recognize as life-changing. His leadership positions in the preservation field were mentioned time and again. Some had personal stories of Jim, Mary, Becky and Suzanne.

But every single person I spoke with mentioned the puns.

It was the articulate humor “with which he approached all of life’s challenges,” as his Advisory Council colleague Tom King phrased it, that was the endearing feature that touched all.

Longtime U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon, who worked closely with Jim on what is now this city’s nationally regarded greenway system, told me that Jim’s most lasting accomplishment was “Holding the world’s record for most puns made as chairman of the Greenway Commission.”

I think Bart was only partially kidding.

Peabody award winning journalist Krista Tippett has written about the link between a sense of humor and wisdom in her book Becoming Wise.  She says,

“I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself….There is a science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections, and leaning into them with joy.”

The Jim Huhta I want to remember today had a wise sense of humor and a wisdom that made unlikely connections, which he leaned into with joy. His professional accomplishments were numerous.  He was one of the pioneers of preservation education, a visionary working in a multi-disciplinary history program at a time when many of the other schools in this field were focused solely on preservation through an architecture and architectural history lens.  Jim once told a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean that “historic preservation is history outside (the) classroom, and it seeks to use our cultural heritage in a variety of ways…for future generations.”

As a pioneer in the field, Jim was sought out for leadership positions here in Murfreesboro, in Tennessee, and across the nation.  Locally, he chaired projects to restore the Rutherford County Courthouse as well as open the Stones River and the Lytle Creek Greenways.  Jim and former Mayor Westbrooks were the driving forces behind the bicentennial project at Cannonsburgh.

At the state level, Jim authored the plan for a National Heritage Area on the Civil War in Tennessee. When opportunities arose at the national level, Jim was there as well.  He was a founder and early chair of the National Council on Preservation Education, served as an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and on the board of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to two terms on the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Jim’s record of accomplishments runs to five single-spaced pages and is a testament to his vision, his indefatigable energy, his love of people, his sense of public service—and his wisdom.

But I want to focus on the intersections of Jim’s life.  Just as thriving Main Streets or exemplary historic sites are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways, Jim Huhta lived those intersections of past, present, and future in a very personal way.

Jim had a family heritage that he loved to showcase.  It didn’t take long to figure out that Jim was the son of first-generation Finnish immigrants.  Usually that information would come out after he told you not to fly on a Finnish airline, because he heard that they sometimes disappeared in Finnair.

I know of students who took pilgrimages to Ashtabula, Ohio, simply because they heard him talk incessantly about his hometown.

But Jim knew that not everyone had a way to connect to their personal past, so he worked hard to get people to look—and treasure—what was around them.  In that same Tennessean interview from 1980, he noted that “Most of us have very little feeling for family, community, and local history. But if we would look at the history closest to us, we would have more pride in our communities.”

Jim wanted to know about your past, but more importantly, he wanted you to know about your past.

Understanding the past is important, but only if it connects and is relevant to the present and the future. How one lives right now in community was central to Jim’s understanding of preservation and public service.  One colleague who worked with Jim spoke to the “broadmindedness and focus on community” that he brought to historic preservation.

I saw this personally, as Jim pushed this young undergraduate to tackle challenges out in the real world. While students who came into his classroom were often scared by the large pile of books and multi-page syllabus he displayed on day one, once he weeded out those who didn’t want to work, Jim quickly led those who were left out of the classroom and into the community.  He had a very robust sense of public service, and Jim worked to instill that same value in those he taught.

But the past and present are still missing a key component if we do not see their connections to the future. I have been working with colleagues across the country on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act to prepare a vision for preservation’s future.  In reviewing this work, I’m pleased—but not surprised—to see how much of this vision comes from what I learned 40 years ago from Jim Huhta.

A preservation movement that puts people first is right in line with Jim’s insights that places from our past, reused today, have positive impact on our spiritual, social, and economic well-being in the future. Jim also believed—and lived it in his life and work—that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the American story.

As he talked about Becky and Suzanne, and later his granddaughters Olivia and Catherine, Jim made it clear that he was working at the intersection of the past and present for future generations – future generations where he had a strong and loving personal investment.

People were central to Jim’s life and work, as those of us who made frequent visits to see Jim and Mary at the yellow house can attest.  He had a familiarity with people from the past—including those who had often been under-represented—that has resonance today.

As the writer Rebecca Solnit has suggested in writing about indigenous communities, “The people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”  With his work to ensure that the lives and stories of those associated with places such as the segregation-era Bradley Academy were not lost, Jim clearly grasped and shared this concept.

My recollections of Jim always include the people he loved the most—Mary, Becky, and Suzanne—and a wide, generous view of family. Like many students after me, I spent hours talking not just with Jim, but with the family. Jim hired me to help with the landscaping at the yellow house while I was in school, and since he knew that my parents were Baptist teetotalers, he always offered up a beer after the job was finished.  When I moved away from Murfreesboro, my mother—who worked at Linebaugh Library where Jim and Mary were among her most faithful clients—would all but encourage me to make a run over to the yellow house when I returned for a visit, so I could enjoy an adult beverage and get caught up on what Jim and Mary were doing. In later years, I would hear of how the Huhtas stopped by to chat politics with my father at his regular table at the City Café. For me and many others, Jim would write exemplary letters of recommendation that would make you blush, but after he sent them off he would bring it back down to earth by telling a bad joke or three.  In his own way, Jim let you know that he understood you as a person with a past, present, and future that he embraced and celebrated.

This is a family to which I am clearly indebted, and to which I hold close as they struggle to make sense of that which cannot be understood on this side of life. I can only say that Jim’s life included a large measure of work to hold both people and place dear.

To paraphrase the writer Madeleine L’Engle, these are places filled with people living over centuries of time.  Places where a richness of experience permeates the rooms and life is lived to the utmost. Where we experience birth and death. Joy and grief. Laughter and tears. And bad puns.

Jim’s life was meaningful, consequential, and full of wisdom for a better future. And now, the fullness of that life will be in this place and in all of us.  May both Jim and Mary rest in peace.

More to come…

DJB

Going Out in a Blaze of Glory

All Souls

St. Albans in Washington, ready for the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed

Last evening’s Commemoration of All Faithful Departed service at our church was beautiful and personally meaningful.  I had it marked on my calendar for some time, as I wanted to attend to remember my father, who passed away earlier this year.

The choir’s music was beautiful, with Mozart’s Requiem interspersed between the readings.  The first of those readings is from the Book of Wisdom and begins, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall ever touch them.”

We put the names of loved ones departed into a basket, and during the prayers of the people each name was read while members of the congregation could come forward and light a candle. (As an aside, I loved hearing baseball legend Monte Irvin remembered among the departed.)

Lovely. Thoughtful. Deeply moving.

And when I saw that The Rev. Emily Griffin was the evening’s preacher, I knew all three of those feelings would continue.  We have three very insightful and thoughtful priests who enlighten us each in their own way with powerful words.

Emily began her sermon by saying, “There are other ways we could be doing this,” and continued by recounting various ways we remember our loved ones.  That’s when my mind took off.

For earlier on Saturday, Andrew and I had our own special “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed” for Daddy/Granddaddy.

When we brought furniture home from his house in August, I threw in his DVD player, knowing ours was on the fritz.  It took me until yesterday to check it out and plug it in.  Andrew was helping me, and after we had it connected, I said, “Let’s see if this thing works.”  We turned it on and out popped a disk. Andrew picked it up and started laughing.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Guess what movie Granddaddy watched last?”

Blazing Saddles.

My father loved the broad humor of Mel Brooks, and we both immediately doubled over in laughter at the thought of my 90-year-old father laughing at such lines as:

Mongo only pawn in game of life.

Hello handsome, is that a ten gallon hat or are you just enjoying the show.

[Jim the Waco Kid to Bart, the African-American sheriff, after the old woman insults him] What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny?” “Make yourself at home?” “Marry my daughter?” You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know…morons.

So what was our commemoration?  Why we sat down and watched the entire movie, and Candice said the laughter could be heard throughout the house.  Andrew texted his sister and some of the cousins with the news of our find and Claire wrote back, “I wouldn’t have expected anything less of Granddaddy.”

It was a glorious celebration.

So thanks to St. Alban’s Church for the lovely and meaningful service.  And thanks to you, Daddy, for having such a wonderful (and wise) sense of humor.

Chiggers

Chiggers (photo by Don Williams)

R.I.P.

More to come…

DJB