From the Executive Director column of the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

On Leaving Legacies for the Future

Arnita A. Jones, December 2008

Even intimations of mortality don’t often provoke most of us to think of making wills, and when we do, still fewer of us think of sharing such wealth as we have for the public good. But Heather Huyck, retired National Park Service historian who now teaches at the College of William and Mary, has set us an example by deciding to make a bequest to the AHA to help revive a congressional fellowships program that she herself had benefited from 25 years ago (for an account of her experiences and her motivations for the decision, read her article).

Huyck, a long-time friend of the AHA who had served on the staff of congressional committees and had worked on legislation relating to national parks and monuments, feels strongly that historians and the U.S. Congress should interact more than they have so far. She decided that one way of building the necessary bridges between the history profession and Congress is to revive the fellowship program that had once enabled historians to participate in and study congressional activities. As she describes in her essay, it was the congressional fellowship that she benefited from that helped her to begin a longtime career as a congressional staffer. Wanting others to have a similar opportunity, Huyck developed the idea of making a bequest representing a substantive part of her estate, to be used to establish a biennial congressional fellowship that would enable one historian to closely observe and work with members of Congress and their staffs to address such history-related matters as the National Parks, the National Archives, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The AHA’s Council accepted the planned gift with appreciation and delight. By doing so, the Council created a wonderful opportunity to revive many aspects of the fellowship program that the AHA had participated in many years earlier (see sidebar for the historical details of this program).

Today, more than ever, perhaps, Congress needs to have an informed sense of the historical context, just as historians too need to have a better understanding of the complexities of the legislative process (as pointed out by John Lawrence in his essay in this issue). To some extent, the congressional briefings that the National History Center has been organizing for the past few years satisfy the first need. In helping to build a new congressional fellowship program on the model of the older program that had allowed her and other historians to acquire a better sense of Congress, Huyck is helping to fulfill the second goal.

In making the bequest, Heather Huyck was also motivated by the hope that other AHA members—as well as nonmembers who have an interest in sustaining and promoting historical inquiry—would make similar bequests to support the fellowship program or any of the many programs that the AHA undertakes for and on behalf of the profession.

As many of us in these troubled times watch our assets growing smaller by the day, figuring out how to share such wealth as we possess, may be a daunting prospect. But a future bequest is another matter. I believe there are many members and other well-wishers of the AHA who can indeed consider leaving a part of their assets to the Association as a legacy that becomes operational not immediately in the present, but in the distant future (and we will always hope, in the far distant future!). Such a bequest will merely be a commitment to share a legacy, a promissory note for the future, as it were, and will not entail any immediate change to the personal balance sheets of the person making the bequest. Until now, the AHA did not solicit such bequests from its members. Heather Huyck’s bequest also was made by her own decision, and not at our request. She did so particularly in the hope that her example will inspire others to follow by making a commitment in support of AHA activities, whether it be the congressional fellowship that Huyck wishes to revive or any one of the numerous tasks that we engage with in pursuit of our mission to promote historical studies.

If you are, indeed, inspired, and would like to discuss the details of making a bequest and how the AHA can help you though the process, e-mail me or by writing to me at 400 A Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889.

—Arnita Jones is the executive director of the AHA.