Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

Career Paths


Public History

When I applied for the AHA Congressional Fellowship in 1985 I had no idea of the adventure before me—or that I would happily stay there as a historian for 8½ years. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I had long been curious about the Congress, but with a recent PhD from the University of Minnesota, a commitment to being a public historian, and a job as the National Park Service (NPS) Chief of Resource Management for the National Parks-Central (downtown Washington, D.C.), I had a growing sense of its importance to the issues I cared about and to the National Park Service itself. When I learned of the American Historical Association’s Congressional Fellowship program, supported by the Mellon Foundation and managed in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I decided to apply.

The fellowship application asked for our background and reasons for wanting the experience. I said I simply wanted to understand better the Congress and to learn its ways, not admitting I didn’t know the difference between authorizations and appropriations then. After a preliminary luncheon interview with then AHA Executive Secretary Sam Gammon at the Cosmos Club, I had a formal interview to ferret out whether my abilities matched the peculiar demands of Hill work—focus, intensity, flexibility, quick study and problem solver. I didn’t get the Fellowship, then in its third and last year. When their first choice decided not to take the Fellowship I was chosen—and have always greatly appreciated the opportunity to gain perspective and experience there.

As a federal employee with the National Park Service and with my Regional Director’s generous support, I was able to take 364 days of leave without pay without penalty. (The fellowship paid only a half salary but I decided I was investing in myself and took the pay cut). I fully expected to return to the NPS immediately after my Fellowship.

After a short trip to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with my widowed father, I returned and soon found myself in an intensive and invaluable orientation to the Congress. For two weeks we learned about this amazing institution, with its colorful personalities and rituals that sometimes defy belief (“I yield myself such time as I may consume.”). The AAAS orientation provided a superb immersion into Congress and its ways including the incredible differences between the respective cultures of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the myriad players involved, the complex procedures some dating from Thomas Jefferson, and the fashion expectations of heels, little suits and blouses and never outshining members of Congress. They drilled into us that we were Fellows, not interns. As “free” high quality workers with PhDs we Fellows were in demand, and respected. The AAAS orientation which gave us a solid foundation for the entire year also included monthly dinners with distinguished speakers, from Carl Sagan to the Rt. Rev. John Walker, Episcopal Bishop of Washington. The September-August Fellowship also provided ongoing education into policy issues, the congressional communities, and an opportunity to become friends and colleagues with some amazing people such as the woman geophysicist who has trekked from Iceland to Peru to Mongolia. I still participate in the Congressional Fellows listserv.

The next challenge was finding an appropriate placement. I had already researched my assignment and knew that the NPS Regional Director who had supported my taking the Fellowship would not be enthusiastic about my doing African children’s issues or health care systems, and that I did not want to work for someone whose political philosophy upset me. After some research into both houses, I enlisted a colleague and friend to argue my case for the House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. Its new chair, Bruce Vento, came from Minnesota; friends there told me I’d agree with him on everything but abortion (a topic I didn’t expect to arise).

Fortunately Congressman Bruce Vento (D-Minn.) chose me and I soon discovered that I had landed on a corner of the Hill populated by men of his high quality–Pat Williams (D-Mont.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Mo Udall (D-Ariz.) and a few women—Lindy Boggs (D-La.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.). It was an environment in which my loving to learn and loving to solve problems served me well, so well that my Fellowship turned out to be career changing. I ended up spending eight and a half years working for Bruce Vento’s subcommittee, doing professional staff work relating to 81 enacted laws, and preparing for hearings, drafting innumerable speeches and letters, as well as attending ceremonial events. I gained a lifelong appreciation for Congressional workhorses and much stronger political beliefs from seeing the two parties up close and personal. I used every bit of my academic training as well as my professional training in cultural resources management, working on everything from establishing the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Georgia (which calls for scholars to re-evaluate him in 2013) to the National Historic Preservation Act Amendments of 1992, re-naming the Clara Barton Parkway just outside Washington, D.C. and drafting the Commemorative Works Act.

In retrospect, though, it’s shocking how little I knew about the Hill before I began the fellowship, especially for a career GS-12 historian working in Washington, D.C. Often I felt as if I were in a perpetual final PhD oral examination, expected to respond to any and every historical issue that raised its head at any time. And I learned that the PhD could make a difference. One time a group of lobbyists brought their historian with them, making their case for a park of questionable value. Each time they asserted their case, Chairman Bruce Vento turned to me (sitting off to one side) and asked my opinion on it. Each time I quietly disagreed. Afterwards, the other historian demanded my business card. After seeing the PhD on it he sneered, “But have you ever taught?” I replied I’d done a lot of training for the NPS (which is teaching itself) but he strutted away, satisfied at my “inferiority.” When I laughingly told the Chairman about the incident, he laughed and said, “Well, he saw you teaching—me—I was a class of one and I’m the one who makes the decisions.” That proposal didn’t become a park. Another time a member of Congress seemed determined to create an ersatz park in his district, complete with paltry documentation, insignificant events and modern construction techniques. The Member told me he “wanted me for breakfast” a phrase I thought might be literal, as it fell to me to tell him “No.” After his arguments citing “his” PhD I said, “But Dr. Huyck says it’s not a good idea.” Once he and his staffer realized they were having breakfast with Dr. Huyck, they dropped the proposed “park” to our great relief.

GettysburgOther times, being a historian meant ensuring that park purposes included historic context—that the 1990 Gettysburg National Military Park legislation specified that the park preserve and interpret the causes and consequences of the Civil War and “the effects of the war on all the American people”—something that its superintendent has rightly used to shift park interpretation from the old “high watermark of the Confederacy” to a “turning point” of the Civil War. Plenty of people will push plenty of projects but a historian who knows the field, or who can quickly find others who do, can handle all these competing forces. As a historian I knew that the “holdings” of the NPS did not match the scholarship on the history of slavery and wanted very much to push the NPS to include such history. When people from Natchez, Mississippi, wanted a new park there to commemorate their antebellum glory my boss and I wrote the legislation founding the park to have park purposes that included African Americans slave and free—forcing the inclusion of the history of slavery at that site. We wanted NPS history to tell “the whole story.” Often, I called on other historians, preservationists, family and NPS colleagues for help. Both Peyton McCrary and James McPherson were terrific in answering such cries. Much of a successful staffer’s work comes in quiet negotiations, writing memos, researching good questions for witnesses and the myriad other details that seldom show publicly. I take great private satisfaction in knowing that I helped make the interpretation of African Americans, free and slave, a purpose of Natchez National Historical Park and that we helped overturn centuries of maritime law to protect historic shipwrecks in the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987.

I tried to give back to the National Park Service as well. In 1993 we developed a three session course for land managing agency employees (NPS, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management) on working with the Congress, complete with my boss Chairman Vento present and with mock hearings. I also wrote “Historians on the Hill” an orientation and guide for historians from academic and other government agencies for making their case on advocacy issues and appropriations and presented it at a 2001 OAH annual meeting.

And so my life changed. The Congressional Fellowship first provided a bridge to becoming a professional staffer—in that year I learned the basics and showed my mastery and aptitude for the work. Later, when I returned to the NPS I had a very different understanding of that agency and its needs. I became the Director of Strategic Planning for the NPS and immediately understood the significance and opportunity the often-hated Government Performance and Results Act posed. Although developing measurable outcomes for the parks, their resources and their visitors posed a huge challenge (“Owls not dead” doesn’t make it), we were finally able to implement the visitor surveys you now see each summer, in the end joking that it finally came down to an understanding that it was all about Happy Bears and Happy Campers.

I spent six years as Chief of the NPS Office of Strategic Planning and then six more as a NPS historian in Virginia, first as director for planning the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown and then as Regional Chief Historian for the National Park Service’s Northeast Region. When I left the Hill, it was to join my husband, not because I was unhappy with the work. Today, retired from the Park Service, I teach in the department of history of the College of William and Mary and in the Sharpe Community Scholars Program of the college, focusing on the Jim Crow racial and gender issues involved in Maggie Walker’s Independent Order of St. Luke and working to preserve its Richmond Virginia headquarters. My time working for the Congress gave me a professional network much richer than before, an ability to think and write more quickly and a deep sense of patriotism and appreciation for that often- tangled place. I would never have had the career I did without the Fellowship.

I also believe in stewardship, perhaps from too many Episcopal sermons on The Ten Talents or from annual church campaigns that emphasize gifts of time, talent and treasure. With much thought, conversations with Arnita Jones and legal bills, my husband and I agreed that a large portion of my estate will go to set up a Congressional Fellowship like the one I was so fortunate to have. We are not especially wealthy. We don’t have a cabin or a yacht or extravagant tastes. We simply think that stewardship means giving back, returning to others gifts one has received. The AHA Fellowship made possible one of the highlights of my career.

Initially this Congressional Fellowship was a secret with me, my husband Charlie Clapper and Arnita Jones and a couple of others. More recently I realized that historians aren’t used to this approach—we haven’t had the resources or inclination to give such gifts. I realized that I might be able to encourage others to make similar gifts. And after still more discussion and the realization how few fellowships are named for women we decided to name it for me. This Heather Huyck Congressional Fellowship is designed to help other historians “bridge” from being historians to being historians working on the Hill. It is not intended for political historians to reconfirm their theories or for political junkies to wallow in name dropping. It is meant to help historians function as public historians in a place where knowing and acting upon good historical scholarship makes a difference. I expect to be around for decades to come but hope that this fellowship will later help the individuals who get it, the Hill and the history profession. I have already gotten much satisfaction knowing that I will help other historians have as wonderful an experience as I did—as historians on the Hill.

—Heather Huyck, who retired from the National Park Service, teaches at the College of William and Mary.

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