Sheldon Hackney, head of the NEH under President Clinton, former president of the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University, is probably the most famous person I have ever known. I worked with him, or more accurately, for him, on Martha’s Vineyard, where he chaired any number of boards. Sheldon died earlier this week, at what seems to be the too-young age of 79. When I last saw him, about two years ago, Sheldon was in the earliest stages–still undiagnosed–of the implacable disease ALS that took his life.
The Sheldon Hackney I knew was a gentleman, whose gift for teaching remained with him throughout his life. I remember sitting in a Vineyard Haven theater enthralled by his critique of the Civil War film Glory and marveling at how he guided discussion and responded to questions. What a thrill it must have been to have had a seat in one of his classrooms.
I never spoke with him about his past, even though I would have loved to have known his perspective on Penn, on peer review, and, yes, on speech on campus. In spite of his love of history, though, Sheldon lived in the present, so the time never seemed right to bring up an old controversy. We were too busy talking about the future.
The Hackney family, especially Lucy, has my deepest sympathy and my great thanks for the privilege of getting to know this extraordinary man.