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UNC historian wins national award (By Anne Blythe)

Reprinted with the permission of The Chapel Hill News.

CHAPEL HILL--Jacquelyn Dowd Hall says she hasn't stopped chuckling since she got a call from the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities a couple of weeks ago.

Bill Ferris, director of the agency, started the conversation off with the usual niceties: How are you? What have you been up to?

Hall, director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a professor in the history department, has been up to her ears in work this semester, so she told Ferris her life could be improved.

"He told me it was about to get a lot better," she recalled this week, still giddy about the news.

President Clinton had selected Hall as one of this year's eight recipients of the National Humanities Medal, awarded to individuals or groups whose work has deepened the understanding and broadened the public's engagement and access to important resources in the humanities.

She shares the honor with Patricia M. Battin, a librarian from Washington, D.C., who organized and led a national campaign to save millions of disintegrating books published between 1850 and 1950; Taylor Branch, the Baltimore-based journalist whose books on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement have won him much acclaim; Garrison Keillor of "A Prairie Home Companion" fame; Jim Lehrer, public TV's newsman; John Rawls, an influential political philosopher from Lexington, Mass.; Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker who produced or directed "Saving Private Ryan," "Amistad," "Schindler's List," and "The Color Purple"; and August Wilson, the Pulitzer playwright.

"That's quite a crew," Hall said Tuesday morning, the day after the National Endowment for the Humanities released the information.

"This is so funny," Hall added. "Whenever I keep thinking about it, I just start laughing. When Bill told me, I didn't know what to say. Later when I started thinking about it, I said, 'This has got to be a joke.'"

But it wasn't. And it isn't.

"Jacquelyn Dowd Hall is one of the nation's preeminent scholars of the New South," writers in the National Endowment for the Humanities press office said in their news release. "A professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she has compiled a distinguished record of scholarship and teaching, leadership in the history profession and public outreach. As director of the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, she has coordinated the gathering of a large collection of primary source materials on all aspects of the New South. This archive is a major influence in contemporary southern studies, attracting many graduate students to the field."

"Her work is an innovative blend of southern history, women's history, labor history and oral history that has earned her a national reputation for scholarly creativity and excellence; numerous honors from foundations, research centers and prize committees; and professional leadership positions," they added.

For Hall, it's an honor, an accolade that gets her an invitation to the White House - for dinner and dancing.

When the invitation first came, she told her husband and her sisters that she had no plans to go out and buy a new dress for the event, that she would just pick an outfit already in her closet and stand there proudly with her family at her side. Her husband teased her with the aside, "I wonder what Steven Spielberg's wife will be wearing?"

What did she do?

"I bought a long, tight silk dress at Modern Times," she said.

The Southern Oral History Program
Center for the Study of the American South
Love House and Hutchins Forum
410 East Franklin St., CB# 9127, UNC-CH
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127
(919) 962-0455