[In his remarks at the banquet Saturday evening, SHOT president Steve Usselman spun a sailor's metaphor to knot together the society's past, present, and future.]
Fiftieth anniversaries are especially rich occasions. In this room, we can look around and see – in person – the full arc of SHOT’s history: from the founders to the future. The youngest among us – those graduate students who managed to secure a ticket – may be in attendance some fifty years from now, when SHOT celebrates its centennial in some other ballroom. Perhaps, here in DC. Perhaps, as Rebecca Herzig suggested the other night at our plenary, at some virtual ballroom. Perhaps, even, somewhere south of the equator. (One can hope, anyway – and also strive.)
In the press to pull this week’s events together, I have hardly had a moment to reflect upon SHOT’s history. (I have some catching up to do on our website.) Unencumbered by facts, I am free to conjure a version of SHOT’s past for imagination. (Reader’s of essay exams will recognize the genre.)
I like to imagine those early founders as boat builders. Feeling trapped on the crews of ships they admired but did not captain, they cobbled together a craft of their own. Knowing Mel Kranzberg, the christening was likely far grander than the vessel itself. The event would certainly have made the news.
For a while, the founders marveled that the thing managed to stay afloat. They took turns at the helm, even swabbed the decks occasionally. But then, inevitably, they began to dream about acquiring a bigger ship – or maybe even a small one of their own. (Sailors among us will recognize the phenomenon.)
The new vessels could be complicated affairs. One might well differ about the trim – the set of the jib, and such. And the voyages were longer, more elaborate affairs. They required organization and planning. You couldn’t turn these craft so easily. I suppose you could say they had momentum. Other craft began to gather in their wakes. There were several little constellations now – small fleets.
Significantly, the old captain did not attempt to be an admiral. (This point was driven home to me this evening, in the recollections of our daVinci award winners.) Instead, he became a sort of friendly harbor master, operator of an inviting – and safe – place of mooring.
The harbor was not large. A keen, fatherly observer could climb to a promontory, survey its waters, and make sense of the scene – if not necessarily bestowing his blessing upon it.
At this point, I can leaven my imaginings with personal reminisce – so the fantasy grows. Truth be told, I skipped the hike up the promontory. (Like any self-respecting graduate student, I took one look at the crowded auditorium at the Smithsonian twenty-four years ago and went off to find barbecue in rural Maryland at a spot called the Dixie Pig – a foreboding of my future, I suppose.) At work, I rowed right out to assume a place in one of the fleets – though not quite sure which one. It was rougher out there than I had been led to believe. Choppier. Gusting winds, variable direction. Hungry sailors. Even some talk of mutiny.
I will fast forward now. I bobbed up, eventually, at the place that housed the old vessel, now in dry dock. A serious note: In January 1996, I taught my first class at Georgia Tech; that afternoon, I attended Mel Kranzberg’s memorial service at the Atlanta Temple. Such are the mysteries of continuity and change that we celebrate tonight.
And now I have bobbed up here, with more than 600 other vessels, and perhaps more participating virtually.
We, SHOT members, may still be boat builders. But SHOT, collectively, is something else again. We are a port of call – a rich, diverse, exotic place, with vessels of many shapes from distant locales skippered by a wide variety of people and lots of interesting places on shore. And, also, a kind of public port authority, which builds and maintains a place we hope many, many vessels will find enchanting — the sort of place to which they will want to return, perhaps not every year, but often. Stimulating. Challenging. Perhaps not quite so safe.
I am not sure how this happened. I was in the waters most of the time. But I know that it is a thing of wonder – a marvelous sight to behold – both the ships at their moorings, and the infrastructure: a meeting; a journal; an electronic journal; web forums; newsletters, print and electronic; special interest groups; boutique conferences; travel budgets for young scholars and a revamped program for international scholars. It is quite a structure – a testimony to cooperative, unplanned, collaborative effort – something to treasure, to celebrate, and to preserve.
I cannot acknowledge all the builders. But I do want to recognize one extraordinary contribution: that of the Dibner family, especially Bern Dibner, his son David, and David’s wife, Frances. For decades, the Dibner Foundation supported SHOT with annual donations of many thousands of dollars and occasional supplemental grants. When the foundation dissolved last year, it provided SHOT with a generous gift of $125,000. Then, on April 18 of this year, my predecessor Rosalind Williams received a call from Frances Dibner. It would have been her late husband’s eightieth birthday. Nothing, she told Roz, would have made him happier than to make a gift to SHOT. She matched the closing gift from the foundation with a check for the same sum drawn from her personal account.
These funds will permanently endow our museum prize and our travel grant program. Two critical pieces of the port’s infrastructure are now secure. Frances could not be here this evening, but she sends her warm regards. I hope to visit her later this year. I would like to report to her that we acknowledged her generosity and her husband’s legacy most warmly – and loudly.
In years to come, I hope we can celebrate many such occasions as together we secure other components of our port’s infrastructure and place them on a similar footing. Our editorial endowment campaign is a good place to start. Please keep it in mind as you contemplate what SHOT has meant for your boat.
[P.S. Donations to SHOT can now be made electronically. To access the contributions form, go to www.historyoftechnology.org and click on “Donate to SHOT.” Thank you! And thanks, too, to the many people whose support made our anniversary events such a rousing and memorable success.]