Remembering John Hench

(February 21, 1943 – April 10, 2024)

John Hench (elected October 1985) was the scholarly soul of the American Antiquarian Society for more than three decades. John’s contributions are deeply woven into the Society’s fabric, and every day we are the beneficiaries and stewards of his remarkable legacy.

A Minnesotan by upbringing and allegiance, John completed his bachelor’s degree at Lafayette College (1965) before coming to Worcester to pursue a Ph.D. at Clark University. There he focused on early American newspapers—and in 1969-70 worked as a page at AAS. After three years as assistant professor of history at Mankato State University in Minnesota, he returned to AAS as editor of publications in 1973.

In those years, the Society maintained a significant publishing operation. Early on, John shepherded to publication bibliographies based on the collections, notably Elizabeth Carroll Reilly’s A Dictionary of Colonial American Printers' Ornaments and Illustrations (1975) and Robert Winans’s A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America 1693-1800 (1981). John also became editor of the microform publication Early American Imprints, begun under Clifford Shipton in the 1950s, and brought that massive, path-breaking project to completion with materials through the 1810s. The twice-annual Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, at once an academic journal and an ongoing account of the Society, was equally his responsibility. Indeed, John wrote many obituaries of recently deceased members for the Proceedings.

John’s portfolio quickly grew to include our fledgling fellowship program, and in 1977 he was appointed to the new position of Alden Porter Johnson Research and Publication Officer. As AAS Director Marcus McCorison wrote that year, the troika of John, William L. Joyce (Education Officer), and Frederick Bauer (Associate Librarian) had “been charged with the development of a unified program that will increase the resources available at the AAS library, will deepen the quality of the use of these research materials, and will, we trust, broaden the impact of historical knowledge upon a diversity of audiences”—all so that AAS fulfill “its just responsibilities within the nation’s cultural fabric.”

John’s early accomplishments included writing the initial, successful National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant applications for two endeavors that would be pivotal to our work for many decades: the North American Imprints Program (NAIP) and our long-term fellowships. NAIP, with NEH support until the late 2010s, was a massive cataloging project to provide deep metadata for all known U.S. imprints, eventually reaching the year 1840. NAIP records remain the gold standard for rare book cataloging. Our NEH fellowship program, continuous since the mid-1970s, brings scholars to the library for periods of four to nine months. Over almost half a century, it has nurtured seminal works of scholarship across academic disciplines.

John brought his own scholarly expertise to additional AAS publications. With Bernard Bailyn, he edited The Press and the American Revolution (1980), a bicentennial project. With Bill Joyce, David D. Hall, and Richard D. Brown, he edited Printing and Society in Early America (1983), essays based on a 1980 conference he organized at AAS. Along the way he completed his own Ph.D. dissertation, The Newspaper in a Republic: Boston’s Centinel and Chronicle, 1784-1801 (Clark University, 1979). After Bill Joyce’s departure, John’s roles further expanded in 1981 when he was named Assistant Director for Research and Publication, thus becoming, with the Associate Librarian, one of Director McCorison’s chief deputies.

More than any other single individual, John made AAS a center for scholarly engagement. In addition to the 1980 Printing and Society conference, he (with David Hackett Fischer and Ronald P. Formisano) organized a regional colloquium series on American Political and Social History that met at AAS six times a year.

Of utmost significance, he led the creation in 1983 of the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture (PHBAC). AAS was already “a leading center for the study of early American bibliography and printing and publishing history,” he wrote that year. “Now the Society is setting out to increase its usefulness as a major center for such studies by establishing … activities [to] include an annual lecture series, workshops and seminars, conferences, publications, and residential fellowships. … By inaugurating this Program, AAS intends to be a major factor in stimulating this developing field of humanistic inquiry.”

And so it has been. Launched when the history of the book (or print culture) blossomed within the academy, PHBAC made AAS the U.S. center of that field. The James Russell Wiggins Lecture, established in 1983, has brought leading practitioners in the field to AAS, often to make significant statements about historical and cultural events as well as methodology and bibliography. Our Summer Seminars in the History of the Book, founded under John’s supervision in 1985, continue to engage rising and veteran scholars and library professionals. The five-volume A History of the Book in America (1998-2010) (HBA), which John and David Hall convened and organized—beginning with a series of planning workshops in the early 1990s and counting scores of scholars among its authors—remains an authoritative scholarly monument. Robert Gross, one of PHBAC’s founders, coeditor of the second volume of HBA, and AAS Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence in 2002-3, remembers “the many meetings … as PHBAC was being conceived and inaugurated and then as HBA was being planned and, thanks to John’s impressive management, brought to fruition. John was such a steady, thoughtful, and gracious collaborator in these projects, which, I think, transformed his own academic-intellectual life as well.”

Through the years, John’s title changed to reflect new assignments, roles, and internal configurations: Director of Research and Publication (1988); Vice President for Academic and Public Programs (1996), and finally Vice President for Collections and Programs (2001). Under his leadership in the 1990s, AAS welcomed new communities of readers under the dome to seminars, programs, and research: K-12 teachers, creative artists, and more. Devoted to scholars at every career stage, he wrote the proposal to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the post-dissertation fellowship that now bears his name, and created the Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence program that brings a senior scholar to AAS for a full year, to serve as mentor to the whole fellowship community. Philip Gura, Mellon Distinguished Scholar in 2006-7, writes, “For many of us of a certain generation, John was the face and voice of AAS. It is hard to imagine the place without him. May he rest assured that he did much to make us what we became.”

For all John Hench’s many tangible accomplishments, his legacy for AAS is profoundly intangible—and evident every day. John built the fellowship program as we know it, grounded in a sense of community that suffuses interactions among fellows and staff. Beyond formal elements (such as fellows’ brief “staff talks”), informal interactions mattered just as much: a fellow’s first conversation with John upon arriving, when his curiosity about every project made the newcomer feel welcome and valued; dinners for fellows and summer seminarians that John and Lea Hench hosted at their home. For many years, John’s office was on the first floor of the Goddard-Daniels House, where fellows resided upstairs. Often, he engaged with fellows in conversation over a cup of coffee in the kitchen, or when they stopped in his office to chat.

AAS President Scott Casper remembers, “John Hench was the first person I met at AAS, in late summer 1990. I was a young, inexperienced graduate student, not unlike many research fellows then and now. John welcomed me in his Goddard-Daniels House office, asked about my work, and offered advice about using the library. Unbeknownst to me then but soon apparent, John’s combination of welcome, helpfulness, and intellectual curiosity was the hallmark of this whole institution.”

John’s equanimity was legendary: he brought a sense of patience and understanding to every conversation. Underneath lay deep institutional and interpersonal savvy. (Working with scholars meant appreciating many different personality types.) He was an extraordinary partner for advancing AAS to two gifted leaders, Marcus McCorison and Ellen Dunlap. Mary Kelley, who coedited the second volume of HBA and served as Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence in 2013-14, writes, “I've known and admired John for decades. John defined dedication to AAS. And he showed us how to emulate that dedication.” Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts Emerita Gigi Barnhill, who worked alongside John through his entire career here, says simply, “John was the best of colleagues.”

In 2006 John announced his intention to retire. He had a book to write: a research project on the Overseas Editions produced by U.S. book publishers during World War II and the early Cold War—not for U.S. troops abroad like the Armed Services Editions, but for European civilians whom they liberated. This project, he wrote, “arose out of my collecting interests”; it surely arose also from many years advancing the study of book history. For this project John was awarded short-term research fellowships at Princeton, Columbia, Indiana University, and British repositories, and a yearlong NEH fellowship in 2006-7 to do the writing. Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II (Cornell University Press, 2010) won the 2011 Book History Book Prize of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. C-SPAN interviewed John about the book in 2010: the video offers a wonderful glimpse of John’s intellectual power and clarity of communication.

“Over the decades, John and I became colleagues and friends,” reflects Casper. “After I moved to Nevada, he generously kept me involved in the Society, knowing, I think, that AAS’s community can be an intellectual lifeline for far-flung scholars. We had many conversations about A History of the Book in America, to be sure, but I also remember festive dinners at conferences from Vancouver to Mainz, when we talked about our lives beyond work. I know now, but didn’t see then, that John considered me a colleague from the very first day we met—as he surely did each researcher committed to the values of intellectual inquiry and integrity that he upheld and exemplified throughout his professional life.”

John’s obituary offers a poignant remembrance of his life, career, and devotion to family. All of us at AAS extend our sympathy to his wife Lea, daughters Melissa Hench Adams and Juliann Hench, and the extended Hench family.