November 17, 2008
By Jessica Pritchard
This post is first in a new series, titled Jobs and Careers in History, to be featured on AHA Today. The series will feature interviews with history professionals who have a range of backgrounds and have careers in a variety of workplaces.
Everyone has that one high school teacher they’ll never forget. Mine was Richard Gillespie, the local history guru in our little western Loudoun County, Virginia, hollow. Growing up, Mr. Gillespie not only taught history, he made it come alive by encouraging students to step outside the textbook and into the past. From crouching down in 19th-century cabins to touch floorboards to reading letters from Civil War soldiers by lantern-light, Mr. Gillespie teaches history through the senses—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feels. He seeks to provoke and to impassion in order to truly connect with the past, to truly understand and rationalize history. As a former student, I learned invaluable skills from him that I carried with me through college and that today are still prevalent in my day-to-day life.
Though he has since retired from public schools, Mr. Gillespie continues to inspire and provoke in his new position as the director of education for the Mosby Heritage Area Association. Headquartered in the historic Caleb Rector House in Atoka, just outside of Middleburg, Virginia, he now works not only with students but also with the public, creating programs that promote preservation through education.
His passion for the past is absolutely infectious. I recently sat down with him to pick his brain about how he got into history, why he loves it, and how he’s made a fulfilling career out of his passion.
Q: What exactly do you do?
A: I’m the director of education for the Mosby Heritage Area Association. I have to invent, design, publicize, coordinate, and give programming for the Mosby Heritage Area. Our programming is on a dual level. Part of it is to the citizens of the Heritage Area—to try to get them to understand the historical resources they’ve got and to help preserve them. The second is through the schools—to try to get kids preservation-central and also to get kids to take what they get in the classroom and take it home to share with their parents.
Q: How did you get this job?
A: I think a couple of things really made coming to the Mosby Heritage Area relevant. I was asked to be on their advisory board, and so I knew of them. They used me as a consultant for educational programming, and pretty much their educational programming was what I recommended for them.
The other thing that’s really important [happened during the] 1998-99 school year when we started a project called the Western Loudoun Heritage Photography Project (WLHPP). The idea was that we should photograph western Loudoun because with massive growth [it] was expected to lose of a lot of its historical treasures, a lot of its rural landscapes, so students went out and photographed it. Out of that came the idea that we need to have a book of walking tours that would help people to go explore that rural environment, so that [book] came out in 2001. It was called Loudoun by Foot, which the Mosby Heritage Area now sells. Because of that, I got a real sense of the impact of growth on the historical environment, and that was really getting under my skin to the point that I would arrive at school all a-boil having seen another house, another subdivision [go up]. I really wanted to be able to do something about that, so when the Mosby Heritage Area interviewed me, it seemed that this would be a good opportunity.
They [The Mosby Heritage Area] exist to promote a preservation effort for people to understand the resources that they’ve got in Loudoun, Fauquier, Prince William, Clarke, and Warren [counties]. One of the amazing things is that this region looks so much as it did 150 years ago that people from the Civil War era would recognize much of it; and that it should last that long, until the 21st century, and then all in a flurry we should destroy it in two or three years time. It just seemed the kind of thing that was horrible. So for me to be able to make a dent on that as an educator, Hey, yes, that would be wonderful.
I was not all together certain that I would be good at working with their target, which was to go to kids in elementary schools that were taking Virginia studies—4th graders. I realized that with my love of storytelling, my historic site experience, and my being about as mature as a 10-year old that I pretty well could relate to them and that they couldn’t wait until I came to the class and told more of d’em stories! So it worked out pretty well. Almost ridiculously well.
Q: What kind of programs do you do when you go into the 4th graders’ classrooms? Is it primarily storytelling? Do you go in just once a year? Do you build the program based on what the teacher is teaching at the time?
A: If you’re a museum educator, you’ve got to correlate with what the teachers teach. What we do is take an aspect of the Standards of Learning and bring it alive through the sensual aspects of storytelling, using photographs, using artifacts, stories, [which] I think are probably the number one way that people learn history. It brings alive what you study that might be very dull in class. It may not be, it may be marvelous in class, but it makes it even more exciting if they’re stories that happen just outside the doors of your school. We always aim to tell stories that are like that. If you go and find the places of those stories, then you realize that those places are at great risk. From early on, you realize that places are what stories are about, and we need to save some of those places that illustrate these stories that bring our past alive, that memorialize the past, that remind us of the past.
We’re very mission-centric. We’re not just building preservationists; we also want to save the farm-scapes and the back roads and the dirt roads. If we go into schools, what do we do that will give kids a sense of that? 4th graders can barely understand the idea of preservation. Some of the people on my board wonder why on earth we target 4th graders, and it’s a real simple thing: it’s the point at which you become centered to the point of history and historic places. It’s to get them to start to think, from the get go, that stories and places can disappear. The stories have to be stories that kids and people would pass on.
Q: What led you to history—to study it, to pursue it?
A: I’ve thought a lot about that—why does somebody go into the field that they go into? You would like to say that there’s just one person that just turned you onto it, but really it was three or four things thrown together.
My grandparents always talked in terms of stories from the past such that when you talked with my grandparents even just in the now, you really knew all the nows from the past. We would sit at a breakfast for three hours or a supper for three hours and tell tales from the old days. By the time I was seven or eight, I was already writing short stories about WWII—pretty stupid ones, but…It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No it’s the Japanese about to attack Pearl Harbor!
I moved to a new neighborhood in the fall of 1960, and when I did, all the guys were like me—they read history, they read history comic books, they watched history shows, and there were lots of documentaries on TV. We would watch them, we would talk about them, we would reenact them. We weren’t geeks! We’d be talking about this while playing football.
Third thing: We grew up in the wake of WWII. Our fathers were all WWII veterans, and they’d talk about it. I think that made us love history. It didn’t hurt that I grew up in Lexington [Massachusetts].
Then my sister went into the field. She got a job as a guide on the Lexington Green one summer. When I was old enough, she urged me to do the same thing—get my license as a Professional Historic Guide, and I did.
Q: What’s your favorite time period? I know I can never pick just one.
A: Yeah that’s it! I believe in provoking other people to be fascinated to want to go explore something. If I’ve just read a really good book, if I’ve been to a really good historic site, then I will pick up a book, I will want to see a movie, and that will be my favorite time period for a bit. Sites to me are the key to provocation in history.
That being said, for years, the Revolution was it. I know I’m more fascinated by American history than other things because I have more of something to hang my hat on.
It’s where you are that’s the thing. The weird thing about the Mosby Heritage Area is in theory, heritage areas are as much for tourists as anything, but our emphasis, while we do not deny that and are quite willing to work with it, our real emphasis is on the people because they’re the ones who we need to turn into stewards for their historic resources.
Check back later this week for the second half of this interview.