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  • A Portrait of the Archivist as a Young Man
  • David E. Alsobrook (bio)

For over four decades, my wife ellen has provided me with much wise advice and counsel about my public remarks—for example, "Always remember that your audience is not nearly as interested in your topic as you are; and be sure to stay on message." I always have tried to follow her suggestions. However, during the preparation of my remarks, I thought of a story, which is a bit of a digression, but also clearly illustrates why I should listen to my wife.

One of the truly wonderful perquisites of being a presidential library director is the opportunity to meet so many fascinating, gifted people from across the arts and entertainment spectrum. When Julie Andrews visited Little Rock about fifteen years ago, Bill and Hillary Clinton were out of town. So, I had the privilege of showing Ms. Andrews around the Clinton Presidential Materials Project, which was located in a renovated Oldsmobile dealership. For over two hours, I showed her samples of presidential documents, photographs, artifacts, and memorabilia. She asked very serious, thoughtful questions during our tour. Then it was time for her to leave. Pausing at the door, she said, "I'm really looking forward to returning someday to see the Clinton Presidential Library." I replied, [End Page 283] "I'm sure that the former President and First Lady would love to give you that tour." She looked me straight in the eye and softly said, "No, David, I want you to do it."

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The author (middle) with Warren and Mary Finch, White House North Lawn, ca. December 9, 1992.

Image courtesy of Bush Presidential Library, College Station, Texas.

I floated home on air. Julie Andrews wanted ME to show her all of the Clinton Library's treasures! When I related this story to Ellen, she smiled and said, "Yes, David—that's why Julie Andrews is such a great actress." We all need someone like my wife who keeps our feet anchored on terra firma.

My presentation today is a departure from past AHA presidential addresses. President George H.W. Bush has recalled his mother's stern admonishment not to be a "braggadocio" and speak only about himself. Similarly, the popular humorist Finley Peter Dunne suggested in 1899 that a more accurate title for Teddy Roosevelt's egocentric [End Page 284] narrative of his heroics with the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill would be Alone in Cuba.1 Thus, I fully realize that a first-person account squarely places me in "braggadocio" and Alone in Cuba territory. This format also lacks the comfortable safety net of a tight chronology with a beginning, middle, and end. What follows are some personal recollections of my life as an archivist—not objective by any stretch of the imagination, but also hopefully not a revisionist history.

During the winter of 1992-93, the National Archives established a small beachhead in College Station, Texas, officially designated as the Bush Presidential Materials Project—a chrysalis of the future George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. The Archives selected a young married couple, Warren and Mary Finch, as my partners on this ambitious mission. Since none of our colleagues from the Archives or other presidential libraries volunteered for duty in this remote corner of Texas, the Finches and I were on our own for almost a year. The responsibility for laying the earliest foundation for the Bush Library thus fell upon the shoulders of three Alabamians who had earned graduate history degrees at Auburn University.2

In mid-February 1993, Gina Howard, a young reporter for The Battalion, Texas A&M University's student newspaper, visited our quarters, a converted bowling alley about a mile from the campus. [End Page 285] Since we were not natives of the Lone Star State, she emphasized the importance of our understanding the bitter rivalry between Texas A&M and "TU," the University of Texas. We three Auburn Tigers smiled at each other, and I said, "Hum a few bars of that tune; we might recognize it." As Ms. Howard flipped open her notepad, I asked...


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