It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in New York in the fall of 1952. My mother, then 22, was sitting around in her fifth-floor walkup apartment on East 39th Street with Rosey, her roommate and pal from Smith College. Looking for something to do to cut the boredom, my mother had an idea: Why don’t we invite David Donald over for a drink?
“It was mostly mischief,” Mother recalled recently, with a chuckle. “It was a little like playing telephone tricks in fourth grade where you call up random people and say something silly.” To their total surprise, Donald accepted. He would be there at 5 p.m.
Donald, then a shy, 30ish native Mississippian with thick eyeglasses, had been Mother’s faculty adviser at Smith. A history major, she would sit with him in his office at the college, the desk covered with research note cards for his book Lincoln’s Herndon published in 1948. He would patiently explain why the passionate Southern nationalism of her Georgia upbringing, so evident in her papers, needed to yield to more analysis and objectivity. Donald was a good teacher, she remembered, and gave fascinating lectures. Rosey was a devoted student of his as well.
After graduation, Mother herself became a grade-school teacher in Brooklyn that fall while Rosey worked at a small publishing company. By then Donald also was ensconced in New York, on the history faculty at Columbia.
With “Mr. Donald” now due in a matter of hours, the two women had a dilemma: what to serve. They could not locate any alcohol in the place and it was a Sunday so the liquor stores were all closed—the law in those days. The invitation idea had been a whim; they had not planned at all. Now getting panicky at their ridiculous situation, they searched the cupboards and finally found a half-empty bottle of cooking sherry. They took a sip, wincing, to see if it was bearable. It would have to do. One of them dashed out to the corner store for a jar of peanuts as the other began tidying up. Three juice glasses were set out. The apartment was hardly ideal for entertaining an honored guest. “Let’s just say it was sparsely furnished,” Mother recalled. “I think we had a sofa.”
The visit itself was “awkward, but we got through it,” Mother remembers. Rosey, laughing out loud at the memory, recollects “nervous conversation” but that “it came off OK.”
In subsequent years Donald kept up a polite, occasional correspondence with my mother. His books, sitting on the shelves of my childhood home, contained cordial inscriptions to “my old friend from Smith College days.” The name David Donald was treated with reverence in our household—we actually knew someone who became famous.
I myself saw Donald very late in his career when he gave the keynote at a conference at Gettysburg. At that point he was David Herbert Donald, Pulitzer winner, professor emeritus at Harvard, the great Lincoln scholar of his generation. At a Civil War meeting like this he got the rock-star treatment with a throng queuing up for a moment of his time. When it was my turn, I complimented him on his talk. Then I mentioned my mother’s name and said something about Smith College and New York City in the early 1950s. He squinted a little and smiled. But he did not remember, either her or Rosey or the glass of sherry.
“That was a long time ago,” he said.
Benjamin O. Sperry is a historian. He lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His mother, Robbie Oxnard, and her friend Rosemary Wilcox Dickerson graduated from Smith in 1951. Historian and biographer David Herbert Donald, who taught American history at Smith from 1949 to 1951, died in 2009.