Winston Churchill is widely quoted (although perhaps apocryphally) as having said, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” But there are some whose living is also rife with giving.
Such was the case with Elizabeth Ridgway. This remarkable woman, the Library’s director of Educational Outreach, passed away Dec. 23, 2010, from a brain injury sustained in a horse-riding accident. She was only 41.
I haven’t written about her until now in part because I was away during the holidays, but also, in all honesty, because I am only now starting to think about her without getting a little too emotionally overcome.
Elizabeth and I worked very closely together over the past four years on many projects at the Library, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. But in that time, she quickly crossed the threshold from mere colleague to dear friend, becoming one of a small handful of people I’ve come to know and enjoy frequently both inside and outside the office.
I have given unfortunately short shrift in public to others the Library’s family has lost over the years, and I have seen far too much talent and positive life forces simply slip away. So from my admittedly biased perspective, I want to hold up Elizabeth as an example of the best the Library of Congress has to offer, but it is no exaggeration to say that she’s also among the best humanity can offer.
Given that this is not a personal blog, I’ll skip the stories about our Tex-Mex lunches that interwove work strategies with idle chitchat or commiseration, the silly nicknames she sometimes gave the Library’s more unusual artifacts, or the “heated” rivalry that cropped up between us if there was only one Diet Dr. Pepper left in the cafeteria. Instead, I thought a few words were in order about a singular mission, pursued by a singular woman.
For two centuries, one most often associated the Library’s educational mission with lofty scholarly pursuits, resources for higher education, or perhaps prominent authors researching the next great biographical or historical tome. But a little more than a decade ago, K-12 education began to be added to the mix. A congressionally mandated pilot program, An Adventure of the American Mind, grew into the national Teaching with Primary Sources program. As the Library’s website says, Elizabeth was front and center:
Elizabeth built and directed the Library of Congress national educational outreach program, Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS). Elizabeth first came to the Library of Congress in 1998 as an American Memory Fellow. [She's in the picture at the bottom of this page.] She was a middle school History Teacher from Arlington County, Virginia and quickly came to understand the power of using primary sources with students. She served as the Library’s Teacher in Residence during the years of 2001-2003 and was appointed Director of Educational Outreach in 2005.
During her tenure with the Library, Beth directed primary source-based content development for the Library’s web site; developed and led many conference presentations; represented the Library to outside education organizations and wrote articles for education journals. Her contributions to the students and teachers throughout the country were professional and profound.
It’s hard to overstate those last points. There are very few people at the Library who logged more miles, and were more ardent boosters, on behalf of the use of primary sources in the classroom. It seemed that when she wasn’t spreading the word at a teacher’s conference somewhere, then she was hosting educators in D.C. at a teacher institute, or even working directly with students. (The photo above was taken at the 2009 launch of the World Digital Library, where she demonstrated the new website for everyone from ambassadors to ordinary passersby.)
And she loved doing it. She herself didn’t have to tell you how much, because you could see it on her face and in her brio.
It was hard to see someone of such boundless energy, cheer and optimism lying silent in the intensive care unit, but I’m grateful that her family allowed me and a seemingly endless parade of other loved ones to visit her bedside. I thanked her for her amazing work at the Library. I thanked her for being an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on. I whispered a few inside jokes and imagined her witty response.
And I told her that from now on, whenever I get another Diet Dr. Pepper, the first swig will always be for her.
Elizabeth’s family has established the Elizabeth Ridgway Education Fund at the Library to help continue her work. You can make a donation here, or to any number of other worthy and privately funded efforts at the Library of Congress. You can also read and sign an online guestbook here.