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Reflections on Tom Hughes

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 4, October 2014
pp. 958-963 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0120

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Reflections on Tom Hughes

I met Tom Hughes in 1995 in the fall of my first year as a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. My husband had just become the rector of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, and we got a call from Agatha Hughes inviting us, as the new rector and spouse, to dinner at their home. My husband told me the Hugheses were an “older” couple in the parish, that Tom was a regular at the eight-o’clock service on Sunday and rode his bicycle to church. Having already been to some dinners with “older” couples in the parish, I expected a thimble of sherry, a simple supper, and home by 8:30 p.m. This assumption left me entirely unprepared for the experience of arriving at the Hughes’s Robert Venturi house in Chestnut Hill for an eclectic dinner party of a dozen or so people from Penn, the neighborhood, and around Philadelphia. On the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the living room, I saw displayed a copy of American Genesis, a book that I had just acquired (thinking it would be a good thing for a first-year graduate student to read). The penny started to drop in my brain—or, more accurately, a torrent of pennies—as to just who Tom Hughes was.

I was never one of Tom’s graduate students—he was emeritus and I was in a different department at Penn—but Tom took an interest in my graduate studies, and came to be my mentor and dissertation godfather. In the summer of 1997, Tom ran into me at a garden party and asked about my dissertation topic. My response was to start weeping into my wine glass. I was going through a horrible time explaining, defending, and getting support for my proposal. With his trademark courtliness, Tom handed me a napkin for the tears, listened intently for a bit, and said, “I think what you are talking about is a technological system. Come see me. You and I should talk about the history of technology.” This was the first [End Page 958] of many conversations over the next decade, usually over a glass of wine, until Tom’s illness and departure from Philadelphia. After completing orals in three other fields, I did another unofficial field in the history of technology under Tom’s tutelage. He persuaded me to attend my first SHOT meeting when it met near Baltimore, meeting me at the entrance, suggesting sessions to attend, and introducing me to everyone he ran into. He suggested I regularly attend the research seminar at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, and we often drove down together (stopping first at Moore Brothers Wine Company in Wilmington so that Tom could pick up some of his beloved German wines). He urged me to submit my first conference paper (to SHOT), read drafts of chapters and papers, and once, when reading a jargon-laden paper I’d written attempting to sound more “academic,” eyed me thoughtfully over his wine and said, “Don’t write like this,” and then swatted me with the manuscript.

I begin with these two personal stories to set Tom Hughes’s experience at Penn into a larger context of Philadelphia. Tom did not demarcate his life at Penn or as a scholar from his life in Chestnut Hill. He loved living in Chestnut Hill, having chosen the neighborhood so he wouldn’t have to use a car. He could easily walk to the stores and restaurants along Germantown Avenue, bike to destinations in the neighborhood, such as his church, and take regional rail downtown from the nearby Highland Avenue SEPTA station. In addition to his full life at Penn and participation in the intellectual life of Philadelphia, SHOT, and national and international organizations, he was part of a neighborhood. Most of the people at Tom’s interment were friends, with neighborhood stories of gardens, fences, birds, squirrels, projects, cocktails, dinners, and differences of opinion about the architecture of the Venturi house.

The Venturi house lay at the center of...