Meet the Staff: E. Lee Shepard
From answering phone inquiries to photographing new acquisitions, the staff at the VHS have a wide range of talents that help make our collections accessible to the world. Who are the talented men and women of the VHS? In a series of “Meet the Staff” blog posts, we will introduce you to the people who work behind the scenes to collect, preserve, and interpret Virginia history.
Meet E. Lee Shepard
What is your job title?
Vice President for Collections and Sallie and William B. Thalhimer III Senior Archivist
When did you begin working at the VHS?
I began working here on an NEH grant in the Manuscripts Department in October 1974. I joined the regular staff in 1978; served as interim editor of publications 1980-1981; became director of the Manuscripts Department in 1991; and Paul Levengood made me Vice President for Collections in 2010.
What are your job duties?
My current duties are largely administrative—budgets, personnel, grant administration, oversight of processing operations and conservation; but I spend most of my time in donor relations, working with potential donors on the acquisition of collections and collection pieces, and making some limited purchases for the VHS. I am the lucky one who first gets to see and learn about the incredible things that come into our collections.
How did you become interested in history?
I remember being fascinated by the subject almost from the beginning of my schooling, and my parents encouraged that interest in many ways—bought me books, for instance, but perhaps most importantly took me on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg when I was about ten years old. That sealed it.
What is the favorite part of your job?
I don’t get to do it much anymore, but actually working with objects and collections is the best part of what I get to do at the VHS. I never fail to marvel at the variety of things to come to us or that have been a part of our holdings for decades, or at the generosity of so many donors and supporters of the VHS. I am pleased to have been a small part of helping our collection to grow over the years and, hopefully, of making it more and more accessible to researchers and visitors, both here and online.
What has been your most memorable moment at the VHS?
There are actually quite a few, as you might imagine. But I must say that the experience that is the most memorable of my professional life at the VHS was the invitation I received with two other of my collections colleagues to visit the library of the late Paul Mellon, one of the foremost collectors of Americana in the twentieth century. Mr. Mellon had turned his former, very large residence in northern Virginia into a library building/art gallery. He very generously left a third of his collection to the VHS, and the three of us were given free rein to go through the building and select what we wanted. Talk about the proverbial kids in a candy store! Turned out we received seven of the ten top items we requested, and many, many more wonderful things from among Mr. Mellon’s extraordinary collection of rare books, pamphlets, manuscripts and maps, but the mere chance to look at it all—even the things that would go elsewhere—was an experience I will never forget.
What is your favorite item in your office? Why?
My favorite piece is the Thomas Sully portrait of Conway Robinson that I have been fortunate to have in my office for the past few years, but will soon go on display again in our main galleries. Conway Robinson was one of the founders of the VHS and for many years the chairman of the Executive Committee, which really ran the VHS for most of the nineteenth century. Robinson was a talented attorney and legal author (and I was trained at the University of Virginia as a legal historian, so there’s that affinity), but also a gifted historian and just an all around fascinating person. I try to think of his wise and visionary leadership when undertaking my duties at the VHS and hope that I can, in some degree, live up to the amazing standards that he set.
What is your favorite collection piece at the VHS?
Again, so many to choose from. But I guess that my absolute favorite is the earliest surviving land plat and survey undertaken by seventeen-year-old George Washington in 1749. It is amazing to see what Washington as a young man was capable of executing, and I think it gives some sign of the man he was to become. It’s an extraordinary piece and we are amazingly fortunate to have it as part of our collection. I have to confess to some personal pride in this, too, since I was one of the staff members who went on the visit to another generous donor, Mrs. Alice Strauss, who so kindly donated the piece to the VHS almost thirty years ago.
What is your favorite historical period?
I am an early American legal historian by training, but I have always especially loved the period of the American Revolution. Disney movies/TV shows about Johnnie Tremaine (Boston, Lexington and Concord) and Francis Marion (The Swamp Fox) got me into it as a youngster, but my reading and studies cemented that interest early on. And, of course, Virginia lies at the very heart of the coming of the Revolution, the greatest success of General Washington at Yorktown, and the debates that led to the ratification of the Constitution and ultimately the Bill of Rights. Yes, we are a center of Civil War memory, too, but if you look closely enough, you cannot escape the Revolution and the Founding Fathers and Mothers all around.
What are you hobbies?
I love to play chess, although I am not very good at it, watch a lot of football, but most importantly have been a musician (guitarist) since I was fourteen. But then, I have a wife, a house, two children and a granddaughter, so who needs a hobby?
If you did not work at the VHS, what would you be doing?
One of my friends in middle school once told the yearbook editor that he either wanted to be a scientist or a stockcar driver. At the time, I could not think of anything more diametrically opposed. But truth be told, if I was not doing what I am (and have been) doing at the VHS, truly my dream jobs, I think I would be pursuing something wildly different. I always thought airport baggage handler had some intrigue…or more likely rock musician…but only if I could play with Eric Clapton…