Historian and educator Sheldon Hackney has died

Sheldon Hackney — File photo by CK Wolfson

Sheldon Hackney of Vineyard Haven, a historian, educator, and public official died on Thursday, September 12, of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 79.

A graveside service was held on Sunday, September 15, in the West Chop Cemetery, Main Street, Vineyard Haven. A memorial service to celebrate Mr. Hackney’s life is being planned for a later date and time to be announced.

A native of Alabama who earned a doctorate at Yale University, Mr. Hackney specialized in Southern history. He served as president of Tulane University in New Orleans from 1975 to 1980. After leaving Tulane, Mr. Hackney was president of the University of Pennsylvania. During the Clinton administration, he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In an interview published September 6, 2007, in The Times, writer C. K. Wolfson wrote, “Both in manner and word, he exudes a calm that encircles him and lends a contagious civility to those around him.”

Describing his years at the helm of major educational institutions, he said, “I enjoyed my college presidencies a lot, so I do enjoy being involved in things. It’s just not ego gratification. I enjoy getting things to happen, and making institutions better, and bringing in people for those tasks.”

Speaking about the Vineyard during the summer months, when he did much of his writing, he said, “The Vineyard is a place where people tend to know each other. There are connections that knit people together.”

At the end of his interview, Mr. Hackney smiled and said, “I’ve had a rich life, and I’m enjoying it.”

In a ceremony on August 12, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum presented Mr. Hackney, chairman emeritus of the museum, with its 2013 Martha’s Vineyard medal. It was one of his last public appearances.

The medal is awarded annually to leaders in the community in recognition of their outstanding commitment to preserving the history, arts, and culture of Martha’s Vineyard.

Longtime friend and seasonal Chilmark resident Vernon Jordan, a lawyer and presidential advisor, highlighted their relationship and Mr. Hackney’s commitment to education and public service.

He touched on Mr. Hackney’s years as college president at the University of Pennsylvania and at Tulane University, and as President Bill Clinton’s appointee as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Hackney whose illness prevented him from mounting the stage, looked on with friends and family as his son, Fain, an Island lawyer, accepted the award and read a touching thank you that his father wrote for the occasion that concluded with his favorite expression, “Onward.”