Elizabeth Ridgway: A Colleague, a Friend, an Inspiration

Elizabeth Ridgway at the April 2009 launch of the World Digital Library in Paris. My caption when I posted this photo on Facebook was, "Who can turn a tower on with her smile?"

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.

19 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    January 3, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks, Matt. weeping all over again.

  2. tierney
    January 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I am so sorry for your, our loss.
    Words are not sufficient, of course.
    A light has gone out.

  3. Robin Rausch, Music Division
    January 3, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    Thanks for your lovely tribute to Elizabeth. I didn’t know her well, but was impressed with what I saw when I presented at her teacher training sessions. She was a real light at LC, and made me feel the future of the place was in good hands.

  4. Elizabeth wulkan
    January 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Before I retired in 2008, I was lucky to know Elizabeth a little. She was effervescent! And so kind. When a colleague of hers died, a person in her office who had no near relatives, Elizabeth held a wake and Celebration of Life in her own home and assured that all who were friends were notified and welcomed there. Elizabeth took care of people.

    I didn’t know Elizabeth in the course of my work at the Library very much but I observed her with others and found her truly impressive. The Library has been fortunate to have many talented, unique and dedicated staff through out it’s history. Elizabeth Ridgeway stands out.

    We were lucky to know her and the Library to have her among its denizens.

  5. John Parsons
    January 3, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Thank You. The emotions of your heart come clearly through. Thanks to social media for connecting me to your feelings. May you and your Comrades live forever in a camaraderie of creativity and care. Much Success & Many Cheers to All! John Parsons

  6. Anne Bell
    January 4, 2011 at 12:03 am

    Thank you for posting these personal remembrances and your tribute to Elizabeth. I am certainly one who benefited from her passion and work, as one of the local directors of the TPS program.

  7. Charles L. Hoke, Jr.
    January 4, 2011 at 1:13 am

    Mr. Matt Raymond, what a fine and nearly-heart-breaking tribute to your Library of Congress colleague. Though not known to me and to many other fellow Americans who deeply appreciate the work done by many of you at LOC, you have touched those of us who, like yourself, have maybe lived, worked and retired after years of service to our nation in the national capital area and abroad and have either known or worked with colleagues who have been celebrated or uncelebrated, maybe even heros or heroines; some deeply respected and others tarnished as maybe not having “measured up.” Nonetheless, we cannot forget the exemplary attributes of those we have known who have risen to serve such fine roles in the forward march of civilization.

    Your privilege to have worked with, been inspired by and to have befriended Elizabeth Ridgeway must be a wonderful support to you in this time of loss for the Library of Congress and our country at her tragic death. No amount of power of arms or national wealth or natural bounty can compare to the importance of the United States’ leadership in reaching out to educate through this great new (2009) World Digital Library. Please keep to your task of strengthening this leadership. I would hope to meet you some day to shake the hand of the man who must have (as a gentleman) relinquished the last remaining Diet Dr. Pepper to his lady friend in the LOC cafeteria.

    This is not Churchillian; it is mine: ‘She is honored who has done her best.’ As you said, this she did and therein lies the honor; had she not “slipped away” as so many others, therein lies the loss to our nation.

    Appreciatively and respectfully,

    Charles L. Hoke, Jr.

  8. HOURIA
    January 4, 2011 at 4:47 am

    Beautiful and moving article … the objective and subjective intertwined in a deep sincerity …

  9. Matt Raymond
    January 4, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Thank you, all, for those kind words.

  10. Mara Miller
    January 4, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    What a great loss for everyone, especially for her family and close friends. She is greatly missed! My sincere and heartfelt condolances to each of you. Kindest regards, Mara Miller

  11. Ann Marie Douglas
    January 4, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    I met Beth through my sister in law Paula Siedel Douglas. She had Thanksgiving dinner with us and was clearly a wonderful person. My heart aches for all of you who lost a friend, but to hear her contributions to society it is very evident that our society has lost a true patriot for our country and the future of it.

  12. Patricia Carlson
    January 5, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I knew Elizabeth from beginning Social Studies teaching days in Arlington and through my work with the TPS Northern Virginia Partnership. I’ve been thinking about her so frequently over the last few weeks and all she accomplished for teachers across America. Thank You Elizabeth!

  13. Carl Cavaliere
    January 5, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    I did not have the pleasure of knowing Elizabeth, but I know several people who did. Your beautiful tribute to your colleague and friend brought tears to my eyes.

  14. Melody Pinkston
    January 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I was an American Memory Fellow in 1998 and remember Elizabeth and warm and helpful. I was so impressed when she later became a member of the LOC staff. I’m so sorry for the loss to her family and to all the teachers who have gained from her contributions.

  15. Sue Sarber
    January 6, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    Matt,
    Thank you so much for writing this. I think we met at the hospital. I have not been able to put into words how much she meant to me and my family. Every time I try, it is just so hard. Thank you for writing this.

  16. Steve Van Nuys
    January 8, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Matt,
    I went to high school with Beth. I was not great friends with her but we were in many classes together and the words that come to mind when I think of her are intelligent, genuine, kind and enthusiastic. I saw her at our 20th reunion few years back and those words still held true. We had a great talk about what she was doing and using primary sources, as I teach US history (at our old school) and I use the LOC website so often. We had a nice conversation and I was struck by how much she seemed to love what she was doing. We caught up on facebook and it was obvious to see that she took that love of life into everything she did ( and she did a lot in her way too short life) I know I can speak for the entire Lake Forest High School Community when I say we were very proud of what Beth had accomplished and what she was doing to improve education in this country and how sorry we are to lose such a wonderful and generous person. I am so sorry for her passing.

    Sincerely,

    Stephen P. Van Nuys
    Lake Forest High School
    Lake Forest, IL 60044

  17. Catharine D
    January 14, 2011 at 11:25 am

    I did not meet Elizabeth Ridgway, but I have known about her for roughly 20 years. She has been a name on branch of family tree file that I have been helping to tend. A cousin with a closer relationship who admired Elizabeth greatly sent me this link because he was proud of the tribute being paid to her and wanted the contents of it to be saved in the family tree file.

    Thank you for sharing this. Not only does it to fill in for me personally a picture of someone who I will now, sadly, never get to know who I would have liked to have known, but it speaks to caliber of employee the Library of Congress has on their staff and the quality of work that is being done there.

    A member of Elizabeth’s family I did know was her grandfather, Bill Ridgway. He was, to borrow your term, of the best of that humanity has to offer, and it is clear that Elizabeth inherited his vibrancy, generosity of spirit, and caring heart. He would have been proud of her and proud of the work that he she did. Work that I hope the Library of Congress will continue and expand in the years to come.

  18. David
    January 23, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Matt, I don’t think we had a chance to meet when I was there in 08-09. E talked about you a lot, and I think you were there when Twitter had just become relevant. E questioned the proper past tense form of the word.

    Thank you for your post here.

  19. Beverley
    March 27, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    I read about Elizabeth Ridgway in the March/April 2011 edition of AASL’s Knowledge Quest and was struck by the qualities she shared with the victim of another horse-riding accident who died at age 16 in 1921.

    Blogs did not exist then, but the world responded to the tribute to his daughter newspaper editor William Allen wrote the morning after her funeral and published in his newspaper. It is available many places on the web; search “Mary White editorial”.

    White’s words have power still today to celebrate a life well-lived and mourn a death come too soon.

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