Ronald Hoffman, former historian and executive director of the Omohundro Insitute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary, died Sept. 4. He was 77.
Hoffman died from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurodegenerative disease.
Before academia, Hoffman served in the U.S. Navy as a Sea Duty Helmsman aboard the USS Newport News. Karin Wolf, current executive director of the Omohundro Institute, said he visited the ship as an adult and wore a well-loved sweatshirt from it.
After leaving the military in 1961, Hoffman went on to pursue his education at George Peabody College and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1969.
Wolf said some of Hoffman’s greatest contributions to the study of the American Revolution was his work on Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
“Hoffman was the premier historian on Charles Carroll,” Wolf said. “Ron edited volumes of the Carroll family papers, he wrote a book about the family and both of those things won prizes.”
Wolf said Hoffman was the first person to compile Carroll’s papers. She said Hoffman discovered his interest in Carroll while doing research on the American Revolution in the South, with a focus on Maryland.
“He started working from the Carroll papers and that’s when he realized there are a lot of editorial projects for Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin or whatever, but nobody had gathered together and edited the Carroll papers,” Wolf said. “And he realized what a significant collection this was.”
In addition to research, Wolf said Hoffman was a teacher and mentor to hundreds of students. Michael Guasco, an associate professor of history at Davidson College, was one of those students. Guasco said he studied under Hoffman in graduate school.
“He intimidated the hell out of me and I adored him,” Guasco said.
Guasco said he would talk to Hoffman for hours about his research and history in general. In addition to listening, Hoffman would also talk to Guasco about what it meant to be a historian and the politics of the field.
“In my mind, he was a perfect mentor in the sense he took inordinate amounts of time to listen and to even open up about his own experience … there was no one else who was a greater champion of me as a historian.”
Guasco was also influenced heavily by Hoffman’s research and work on the role of race and slavery in early America. He added Hoffman also hosted a series of conferences on the subject.
“I was definitely shaped by what he was doing at the institute as much as anything,” Guasco said.
In 1992 Hoffman became the head of the Omohundro Institute and led it for 21 years. Wolf said this was the longest anyone has ever headed the institution.
Other than Hoffman’s children, Wolf said being the head of the Omohundro Institute was the most important thing he did with his life.
“He was unbelievably sharp and creative historian and scholar, but also just a hilariously funny person,” Wolf said. “He drove way to fast and loved to drink craft beer.”
He is survived by his partner, Sally Mason; his daughter and son-in-law, Maia Hoffman and Avi Melamed; his son and daughter-in-law, Barak Hoffman and Dora Lemus; and his sister, Joanne Giza.
Hoffman will be buried at Moshav Sde Nitzan in Israel.
Want to honor Hoffman?
The Omohundro Institute will host a celebration of Dr. Hoffman’s life from 5–7 p.m. Nov. 6 in the Great Hall of the Sir Christopher Wren Building at William and Mary.
Memorial gifts may be directed to the Omohundro Institute, which sponsors the Ronald Hoffman Postdoctoral Fellowship in his honor. You can send them Omohundro Institute, PO Box 8781, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8781, or email Shawn Holl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.