Today’s post comes from Rebecca Brenner Graham, a former 2015-2016 intern in the History Office at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Sam Anthony passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. This post was originally written in 2015 and recently edited. Sam asked we hold publication until after he was gone.
He referred to Archives II in College Park, MD, as the “Glass Palace” and joked his biggest success was not getting fired.
He was Sam Anthony, special assistant to the Archivist of the United States.
Sam recalled that his high school history classes were “boring, plodding, and pedantic,” but he knew that there was more to history.
In college, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, his medieval history professor captured students’ interest by lecturing without referring to notes, “talking like a televangelist” about the “gospel of medieval history.”
In 1991, Sam began working at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where he worked from 8:45 a.m. to 9 p.m in the research room.
Ken Heger was the afternoon and evening supervisor who taught Sam how to research. Sam remembered that genealogy specialist Connie Potter was kind-hearted, and she taught him how to interact with people. In tandem, these mentors prepared Sam for a lifetime of public service.
Then, in 1998, Sam began to manage the author lecture series as part of NARA’s public programs. Sam’s bookshelf remained full of books representing his experiences hosting that series.
He cherished when there was a “packed house,” and even more, when there was a thunderstorm, and the turnout was terrible, but those who came soaking wet had a wonderful time with the author.
He first met historian Allen Weinstein during that job. In 2005, when Weinstein became Archivist of the United States, he hired Sam as a special assistant. Sam also served as special assistant to Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas and current Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero.
In 2012, Sam underwent his fourth surgery for oral cancer. Around this time, he took the initiative to establish and lead an exercise group, which he called “boot camp.”
Being special assistant to the Archivist included giving tours to special guests, retrieving answers, and writing speeches.
For Sam, work was most meaningful when it helped the agency. He explained: “I have learned to check my ego at the door because here, ego means nothing. There are people more important than me here.”
Sam researched special guests and strove to accommodate their interests. He always considered: “How can I make that special guest feel welcome; how can we make it feel like their time has been well spent; and how can they walk away again, understanding who we are, what we do, and what we have?”
Sam valued his friends and allies. In a city of serial networking, Sam was a genuine builder of relationships. Colleagues called him a “uniter.”
Sam’s favorite parts of NARA were the records and the people. He emphasized that the reference archivists were some of the hardest working people he had ever met.
Sitting down for his oral history interview in summer 2015, he looked out his window, where he could see Pennsylvania Avenue from his desk, and exclaimed: “I’m sitting here, and you’re actually asking me questions. I’m humbled by it.”
In his oral history, Sam reflected on his mentors, his friends, his time in reference, and his time in the lecture program. He concluded: “I learn something every day, and I have no regrets.”
He added that working at NARA, he “still feels like a kid in a candy store.”
In the end, the National Archives functioned best with Sam Anthony there, and NARA shined brighter. The entire agency will miss him.