From the AJHA Vault: Roanoke 1994

17 Dec 2021 10:44 AM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

The August 1994 Intelligencer included preview columns and
the full program for the Roanoke conference. Click here to view the full PDF.

by Erika Pribanic-Smith, Executive Director and Interim Intelligencer Editor

Last month, AJHA President Aimee Edmondson shared her AJHA “origin story” and urged other members to share theirs. Comments in the AJHA Facebook group revealed that several members first attended at the 13th annual conference, best remembered for disco dancing at the conference hotel and a tour bus that broke down outside a dive bar.

The late Sam Riley led the planning for the conference, which took place Oct. 6-8, 1994, at the Airport Marriott in Roanoke, Virginia. His August 1994 Intelligencer column previewing the conference emphasized two main speakers and a field trip.

Keynote speakers were Donald Ritchie, associate Senate librarian, who spoke on the history of the Washington press corps, and Eric Newton, founding managing editor of the now-defunct Newseum, which was under construction in Arlington, Va., at the time of the conference.

The annual historic tour took visitors on a one-hour drive to Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s getaway home, and a return trip via the Blue Ridge Parkway. In his Intelligencer preview, Riley wrote, “By early October, nature should have cooperated by turning the mountain leaves all sorts of pretty colors.”

John Coward, who was on the planning committee for the Roanoke conference, recalled that most tour-goers never had heard of Jefferson’s Forest, Va., home.

“I remember that the buildings and grounds were modest compared to Monticello, but the tour was informative about Jefferson’s life as a farmer and agricultural innovator,” Coward said.

Though the planners had promised that those on the tour would be back to the hotel by 6 p.m., one of the buses took an unexpected detour.

“The bus limped into a roadside restaurant or bar, and we decamped to some tables outside to tip a glass or two,” Coward said.

Karen Russell and David Davies were newcomers to AJHA that year. Russell remembered piling into the bar with some locals that Friday afternoon, “and the staff wasn't very pleased, especially when we all picked up and left again.”

Davies said the group was at the restaurant/bar for an hour or two while waiting for a ride back to Roanoke.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is my kind of conference,’” Davies said. “The conversations at the bar allowed for even more back-and-forth than usual at an AJHA conference.”

Coward remembered talking at length with Shirley Biagi, Elizabeth Burt, and several other members during the long wait. “We arrived back at the hotel late, but nobody seemed to mind,” Coward said.  

The Thursday evening reception also offered an opportunity for attendees to chat. Riley noted in the Intelligencer that the Roanoke Times & World News, then touted as Virginia’s largest paper west of Richmond, was hosting the reception.

“The newspaper building had a rooftop plaza/garden that offered a view of downtown and the weather was pleasant, so that was an unexpected treat,” Coward said.

Jim McPherson, who also was attending his first AJHA conference that year, remembered spending a lot of time talking to the late Wally Eberhard at that reception. McPherson also recalled that he and another grad student stayed in a cheap motel a ways away from the conference hotel and rented a car.

“It turned out that the conference hotel wasn't close to anything, so I got to drive around some of the long-time members,” he said.

Another first-timer at Roanoke, Janice Hume explained that AJHA wouldn't book a hotel that cost more than $70 a night in those days, “which meant strange places and sometimes sketchy hotels.”

Coward said the hotel was isolated along a major highway, so there were no restaurants, shopping, or attractions to walk to. “That meant that we were all pretty much captives at the hotel, which worked out okay since it was a fairly new property and the food was good,” he said.

One evening, the hotel bar was the site for a spontaneous disco dance. Hume and Russell reminisced about dancing with Davies, Fred Blevens, and Caryl Cooper.

“It was hilarious,” Hume said. “And in case the young people don't know, it was WELL past the disco era.”

Bars and dancing aside, the Roanoke conference featured plenty of serious business. In her president’s column leading up to the conference, Carol Sue Humphrey noted that the membership would be voting on several proposed amendments to the AJHA Constitution and Bylaws. One set called for the creation of the Awards and Convention Sites committees, both of which had been operating as ad-hoc committees for a while.

Another set of amendments created AJHA’s vice-president positions: one to oversee the committees and a second to put together the annual conference program. “Having spent the last 10 months trying to juggle all the current responsibilities of AJHA president, I find this proposal an inviting one that I believe is truly needed,” Humphrey wrote.

In her column, Humphrey praised the efforts of Riley, Coward, the late David Spencer, and Alf Pratte to plan the Roanoke conference. “All of their hard work is clearly paying off in a meeting that promises to be full of good scholarship,” she wrote.

Among the ten panels discussions on the program was one that Riley organized on the Research Society for American Periodicals, featuring that organization’s president and the editor of its academic journal. The program also included 42 research papers and 24 research-in-progress presentations.

Russell presented her paper about public relations, the community, and newspaper coverage of a 1946 steel strike on a paper session about news as propaganda, alongside Burt and Kitty Endres. Davies’s paper was on Presidents Madison and Monroe in the party press, Hume’s was on the women of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and McPherson’s was on newspapers’ use of editorials to define their First Amendment functions.

Karla Gower presented her first AJHA paper in Roanoke as well: “Women in the News: A Look at the Presentation of American Women in News Magazines from 1945-1963.” Gower said her MA advisor was busy with board business, so Spencer took her under his wing and introduced her to people.

Among the people she met was Jim Startt, whom she sat next to at a lunch. Gower experienced what many students attending their first AJHA have felt: the wonder of talking with the very scholars whose work they have read in class.

“I kept thinking, ‘How do I know his name?’ Once I realized (David) Sloan and Startt were the authors of our text, I was awestruck,” Gower said.

All of the first-timers said that they felt right at home among the people in AJHA, and that was why they kept coming back year after year.

Were you at the Roanoke convention? Comment your memories below.

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