Alumni Association Award for Excellence in Public Service
Professor of History
College of Liberal Arts
Right: Ellen Fitzpatrick caught live and on camera at her Newtonville, Mass. home.
The face of UNH
Ellen Fitzpatrick was standing in a crowded elevator at a Boston hospital when a nurse in scrubs looked her up and down and announced, "You look just like someone I saw on television last night." Then, a pause. "Are you the person I saw on television last night?"
Ellen Fitzpatrick is the University of New Hampshire historian that millions of people have seen on TV—every night during the 2004 Democratic Convention and regularly on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer ever since. As a result, complete strangers—a highway toll taker, a motorist at a rest stop—often recognize her. "Aren't you the professor at the University of New Hampshire?" they ask. "She has become the face of UNH for many people across the country," notes colleague Jeffry Deifendorf, who believes her work as a "public intellectual" has benefited the public, the University, and her students.
Fitzpatrick is an active scholar of American history and has written several books. But unlike most academics, Deifendorf notes, she shares her knowledge, live and on national television. She's willing to be "on call," answer unanticipated questions, and receive unsolicited advice: one viewer advised Fitzpatrick to fire her hairdresser, and a former professor contacted her for the first time in 25 years to point out a grammatical slip of the tongue and warn her to "watch your language!"
Not to mention the anxiety. "There's a moment when the lights go up," says Fitzpatrick, "and you realize it's live and you cannot afford to screw up." It's a responsibility she finds stimulating, but sobering. She takes it on because she values the opportunity to give viewers and readers a historical context for present–day politics and events.
Like many historians she knows, Fitzpatrick believes that growing up with a grandparent in the household gave her an added appreciation for the past. At 11, she watched John F. Kennedy touch down in a helicopter in her hometown of Amherst, Mass., and give a speech at the dedication of Amherst College's Robert Frost Library. That event, followed by his assassination less than a month later, gave her a keen sense of "how history happens and how quickly things change." Today she speaks of the past with a kind of reverence, as something that must not be misused for political expediency. Invoking the past is like quoting the Bible, she says. "People can always find something to support their point of view."
So Fitzpatrick points out analogies she thinks are not quite apt, such as parallels the Bush administration has drawn between World War II and the war in Iraq. She rights the wrongs of misrepresented facts, reminding viewers that contrary to "quite a bit of bluster by Democrats in the press" today, it actually took Congress a very long time to cut funding for the Vietnam War. Often, she simply uses the past to shed light on the present. On Face the Nation, when asked why second terms often seem to be jinxed, she noted second–term presidents have often "come upon the rocks of some kind of military adventurism."
NewsHour producer Peggy Robinson believes Fitzpatrick's classroom experience enhances her performance on the air: "She is able to convey a lot of information in a short amount of time with a great deal of warmth and humor." Actually, it goes both ways. In teaching Elizabeth Cady Stanton's essay "Solitude of Self" in her course on intellectual history, for example, Fitzpatrick asks students to write about "what's dated about the essay and what still resonates for those of us living in the twenty–first century." That's the same thought process Fitzpatrick goes through in preparing to speak on the air about the relevance of the past to contemporary politics. In carrying out the assignment, students can bring a bit of history to life—and also learn to think like a historian.