History Students Rub Elbows with Virginia’s First Families

Three MLWGS students engaged in an oral history project to capture the life of residents – former and current – of Virginia’s Executive Mansion. Mitch Caudill, Maryam Patton and Elsa Schultze interviewed first families and staff members this summer. Their work will assist Executive Mansion staff and may be used in a new publication by the Library of Virginia.

Anne Holton, First Lady of Virginia, suggested John Wilkes’ Historiography students participate in the project after having a positive experience as the subject of an oral history project conducted by MLWGS graduate, Sara Freeman (’09).

On July 12th, eight Virginia governors, families and staff visited the Executive Mansion and shared memories with the MLWGS interviewers. “The best part of my experience was being the first member of the public to hear stories that vary from fascinating, to funny, to occasionally serious,” said Caudill.

Patton said she was awed by the importance Virginians attach to the Executive Mansion, both those who lived in it and as a symbol of the Commonwealth in general. “The fact that it's the oldest (executive mansion in the country) still used for its original purpose and the care that goes to preserve it and renovate it shows this even more.”

The transcriptions of these interviews will prove useful in docent training and mansion tours, said Laura Fields, assistant to the Mansion director. Tom Camden, the Library of Virginia’s Special Collections Director, said the work may end up in a history of the Mansion currently being discussed.

Despite the importance of their interview subjects, students said they found them cooperative and approachable. “There's a lot to be said for learning to be at ease around people of power and I think, perhaps, more importantly learning that the divide we create between elected officials and ourselves is fictitious at best because they are simply other people,” said Caudill.

Schultze was even more succinct, “I learned that if you seek it out, history can be very accessible.”

Executive Mansion Oral History Project Team (L to R): Laura Fields, Assistant to the Director of the Executive Mansion; MLWGS students, and Tom Camden, Director of Special Collections at the Library of Virginia.