Sheldon Hackney
Photo by CK Wolfson

Gentleman & Scholar Sheldon Hackney

By CK Wolfson - September 6, 2007

Both in manner and word, he exudes a calm that encircles him and lends a contagious civility to those around him. Award-winning author and educator, nationally recognized scholar of the history of the American South, 73-year-old Sheldon Hackney would appear distinguished even without a vitae that includes being provost at Princeton (1972-1975), president of Tulane University (1975-1980), president of University of Pennsylvania (1981-1993), and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH, 1993-1997).

The Alabama native flinches slightly at the suggestion of having wielded power. "I enjoyed my college presidencies a lot, so I do enjoy being involved in things," he says. "It's just not ego gratification. I enjoy getting things to happen, and making institutions better, and bringing in people for those tasks."

Mr. Hackney also admits enjoying his role as chairman of the NEH, where he had the authority by statute to make decisions without having to seek advice. "But you're really crazy if you go after it that way," he quickly adds, "because you won't understand everything. And people believe in the program that comes out of what they've helped put together."

Tall and lanky, Mr. Hackney slowly moves around the sunny kitchen of his and wife Lucy's Vineyard Haven home. The edges of his words are subtly rounded by the remnants of a Southern lilt, and, as he prepares his morning coffee, offering his guest a choice of beverages, he brings to mind the phrase, "Southern gentleman."

At the idea that the course of his career was charted, he smiles. "No, it happened by accident. I didn't say no enough."

After receiving a doctorate from Yale University, his first job was as an instructor at Princeton. "I had three children, a wife, and not much money, and started teaching an Upward Bound program for disadvantaged high school students." He was asked to be director of the program, which became a model for the country. He was instrumental in the establishment of African-American studies at Princeton, where he became increasingly involved in administration.

But as he will do frequently in the course of his conversation, he artfully veers the subject away from himself by offering some meaningful observations.

"One of the things I've learned in my career as an administrator is that you really need to think through your basic principles before you start. You have to be quite clear about what you think is fundamental, because you're going to be facing those choices, and often without time to think them through. For example: an institution should control itself through its own methods of decision-making. It should decide what stands to take, what rules to apply, what to do with its funds."

In 1993, during his confirmation hearing for the NEH chairmanship, he was embroiled in the "Water Buffalo Incident" - "It was the worst year of my life." It was the result of the University of Pennsylvania charging a student with racial harassment, over an outcry from the conservative establishment in the media who claimed freedom of speech. Mr. Hackney bore the fallout during the confirmation hearings.

He wrote a much-acclaimed memoir about the experience ("The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memoir of the Cultural War," New South Books, 2002), with a forward by Vernon E. Jordan Jr., and now speaks of it matter-of-factly. "It's impossible not to take it personally. The truth was so distorted. The Wall Street Journal wrote seven editorials opposing my confirmation, putting in those editorials statements of fact that were not true. I'm basically over that. I got confirmed, and it gave me some faith in the democratic process - if you let the system work."

The Hackneys share a legacy of belief in that system along with a family tradition of activism. Lucy Hackney's mother is the late Virginia Durr, author ("Outside the Magic Circle," 1985) and noted Southern civil rights activist. (Her brother-in-law Hugo Black, Sr. was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1937.) Lucy Hackney's wedding dress was fitted by family friend and seamstress Rosa Parks.

Virginia Durr, who lived in Alabama, spent summers on the Vineyard with the Hackneys. Mr. Hackney points to the cushioned window seat, Ms. Durr's favorite place, and to the small framed picture of her reclining there that's perched in the corner. He reminisces about first coming to the Vineyard in 1966 - he and Ms. Hackney were visiting her college roommate - and have returned every summer since, buying a home and remaining for extended periods.

Mr. Hackney does much of his writing on the Vineyard, (the Hackneys spend their time between the Vineyard and Philadelphia), and compares the routine and conventionality of their lives to that of their many seasonal friends, "who come here and lead resort lives." His smile appears almost shy as he says, "I don't wake up in the morning wanting to meet another celebrity," and adds, "I find myself understanding the year-rounders motto, thank God for September. Summers are terrific, but after Labor Day things change and become more normal."

Sitting at the long kitchen table in front of a double-height wall of windows, he can see the lawn sloping to his wife's flower garden, and beyond that to the tennis courts of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, where Ms. Hackney is playing doubles. The house is quiet, and the plunk of tennis balls in play sounds like a muted metronome.

"The Vineyard is a place where people tend to know each other. There are connections that knit people together," Mr. Hackney says, noting that his daughter Virginia, a year-round Islander, is an example of that. "She has been helped so much by people who know who she is and who help her do what she needs to do. She builds these networks, and I don't think she could do that in Philadelphia or New York. She's much on my mind these days," he says. Without changing his inflection, he explains that Virginia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. "She is living her life as intensely as she can. She wants to stay independent, and she tells her mother she doesn't need a hovering mother.'" He keeps friends informed of Virginia's progress by composing regular e-mailed reports.

Mr. Hackney has begun "phased retirement," at the University of Pennsylvania. He admits - although he doesn't sound as if he's about to slow down at all - it does worry him a bit. He is writing a biography of his teacher and friend, preeminent historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward, author of, "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," a book Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as "the historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement." Mr. Hackney describes his mentor as, "a southern gentleman whose whole theory about the search for truth was that it was a collective process. So your critics are your allies."

Her tennis match over, a smiling Ms. Hackney comes in through the kitchen door. Returning her smile, her husband says, "I've had a rich life and I'm enjoying it."