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In Memoriam: John Selby, Professor of History Emeritus

John SelbyProfessor of History Emeritus Thad Tate celebrates the life of his friend, former roommate and fellow scholar of early American history:


In announcing the death of John Edward Selby on Wednesday, March 21, at the age of 72, President Timothy Sullivan aptly noted that Selby had “played a central role in the life of the College, the Department of History, and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.” His was a distinguished career not simply by its length but even more by the breadth and variety of his contributions to William and Mary and to his chosen field of study.

The range of his activities as teacher, scholar and academic administrator defies easy summation. During the full span of his tenure he taught at every level from introductory undergraduate courses to advanced graduate seminars and was also book review editor of The William and Mary Quarterly, where his work helped shape the historiography of early America.

Demanding as those concurrent responsibilities were, at one time or another he also held administrative appointments ranging from director of graduate studies and chair in the Department of History to graduate dean of Arts and Sciences and acting dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He was also first president of the Faculty Assembly and a member of virtually every committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Somehow he also found time to maintain an active record of research and publication. In addition to a number of articles and essays, he was co-author of Colonial Virginia: A History (1986) and author of Virginia in the Revolution, 1775–1783 (1988), a work that provides the fullest available account of the state in the critical years of the Revolutionary War.

It is important, too, that we recognize the traits of character and temperament that made these achievements possible. As a colleague and friend in our graduate school years, I came very early to an appreciation of John Selby’s personal qualities, as did many of our fellow students. As young as he then was, we quickly found him to be someone of surprising maturity and sound judgment, steadfast and dependable, with a lively but gentle sense of humor.

A decade or so later, he joined the faculty of the College and the staff of the Omohundro Institute. With our closely intertwined professional careers and the renewed friendship that followed, I soon realized that in the intervening years he had honed those qualities that he had displayed earlier. It came as no surprise that a succession of College administrators would call on him to undertake tasks that required someone of good judgment and a sense of reason, someone who was essentially unflappable. This is not to suggest that he was ever hesitant or unwilling to act. Once he decided that a step needed to be taken, he could be counted on to carry it out patiently but firmly. Thus did John Selby compile the record of service that I have only been able to outline. He has left the College—and all of us who are associated with it—a rich legacy.