David Van Tassel
On June 3, 2000, the National History Day (NHD) community was saddened by the sudden loss of David Van Tassel, NHD's founder. Although we mourn his loss, we also celebrate his life and legacy. I cannot think of anything more powerful or exciting than to have an effect on a young person, to change a life in some positive way, to watch the light bulb go on and to feel that you had something to do with that. David Van Tassel did that for millions of young people through National History Day. His influence extends to the barrios of Los Angeles, to inner-city Houston, to Navajo and Lakota Indian reservations, to small rural Midwestern towns and to wealthy and middle class suburbs. Through National History Day, David created a vehicle to reinvigorate the teaching and learning of history. But more important than that, what he produced was something that truly changes lives.
It all began in 1974 when, concerned about the devalued nature of history in the nation's elementary and secondary schools, David Van Tassel, professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, sought to bring the past to life for students and teachers. His idea was a competition through which middle and high school students present historical research in papers, table-top exhibits, dramatic performances, and multi-media documentaries. These products would be entered into contests and evaluated by professional historians and educators. Although just a simple thought a quarter century ago--a local program to excite Cleveland area teachers and students about history--his idea grew into National History Day. Today it is the nation's leading history education program, reaching more than 700,000 children every year and providing 40,000 teachers with a vehicle to enhance teaching in classrooms around the country.
National History Day is more than a contest. It is a rigorous program that requires young people to conduct extensive primary and secondary research, interpret information and draw conclusions about the meaning of the past. In the process, students examine topics within historical context, learning important content as well as valuable research, critical thinking and communication skills. The program has had a dramatic impact on the way in which teachers teach, inspiring educators to incorporate research techniques and primary source analysis into their regular classroom work. But even more than that, the program that David created has been an extraordinary experience for all those it has touched. Through National History Day, David has kept students from dropping out of school, he has made it possible for young people to enter college, and he has brought families together around the dinner table to discuss the history of their families and communities. He began a revolution in classrooms nationwide.
National History Day was not David's only project; his reach extended beyond NHD because he worked every day to make a record of the past and to teach others to find the future. David was an accomplished and published historian in his own right. But always a visionary, David's greatest works were those that brought history to the broadest possible audiences, including National History Day and the highly acclaimed Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, or those that broke new ground such as his pioneering work on the history of aging. However, for all his training as an academic, David was best at making things happen. A strong, yet quiet man, he knew how to ask for help, and whom to ask, to maximize the results. Thus the real secret of NHD is not that it is a program dependent on one individual but a movement leaning on tens of thousands of volunteers across 47 states and the District of Columbia. Inspired by one man's vision, National History Day is now an army of students, teachers, parents, public and academic historians and volunteers dedicated to bringing a meaningful study of the past to life in classrooms nationwide.
The best praise of David's creation comes from those whom he influenced the most, those who for the most part he never met. Annually, we receive letters and notes from students, teachers, parents, judges and others who have felt the power of NHD. Their words express what so many of us feel, how powerful and empowering National History Day-David's legacy-is:
He leaves his family – Helen and their children and grandchildren all successful in their own way – a mark to be envied. But more than that, David leaves a beacon of learning and growth to show the way. His is not a monument erected by a fearful man worried how history will see him. Instead, David worked every day to make a record of the past and to teach others to find the future. National History Day lights the way – from a simple thought a quarter century ago to a nationwide program reaching over 700,000 children each year.-Richard T. Prasse, Former President, National History Day
I honestly believe few historians in the last three decades have had more impact than David Van Tassel in encouraging the study of history at the middle and senior high school level and in maintaining the vitality of our field for the general public. The relatively simple design of History Day captured the hearts and the intellects of many young people, and in the process, excited or re-excited his professional colleagues in colleges, universities, public and private schools, museums, and historical societies.
The historian’s craft is often a lonely one, and I think one of David’s greatest achievements was to bring us together as a community to celebrate our craft. We are important members of the community, and History Day was a way to express that publicly with much fanfare and ritual. While History Days are celebrations of individual achievement and effort they are also corporate celebrations of our craft and an acknowledgement of the historian’s important role in making the life of the individual and the community richer and more meaningful...When I see my students go into their own classrooms and involve their students in History Day and come back to help judge the district contest, I know his legacy will continue.
I know many of us share his dream--indeed we became co-creators of that dream as we joined in the development of History Day--and will strive to pass the enthusiasm for our subject on to the next generation.-David Twining, Westminster College
David Van Tassel’s death this spring sparked me to think about what National History Day has meant to me. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with David over the past 10 years to help him make his vision a reality.
My first experience with History Day was in the late '70s when as a graduate student I was asked to judge Indiana History Day. I was so thrilled to see students focused on research and communication and grappling with how the past affects them now and will shape their future. I knew immediately that History Day was something special...David’s legacy is truly one to admire and I look forward to continuing to assist you as you take the organization into the 21st century.-Lynn A. Fontana, Vice President of Education, Nobel Learning Communities, Inc.
Although five years have passed since my son took part in National History Day, I would like you to know that his participation in your program was a defining moment-perhaps the most important single experience to date-in his academic career...For the first seven years of his school life he had only social goals in class; he was a reluctant scholar, interested chiefly in entertainment and only dimly motivated to learn. It was the National History Day program that turned things around.
Wilson is a bright boy and might in time have found other motivators but I doubt that his change of attitude toward learning would have come as early or that the results without History Day would have been so dramatic. I would like to thank you and the supporters of National History Day for inspiring my son to aim high and for helping him make an important turn toward adulthood. You will probably never know how many times your program has had similar results around the country, but as this example attests, there are benefits in what you are doing that go far beyond your laudable aim of promoting the study of history. -Earl M. Rickerson, NHD Parent, South Carolina
Well before the first time I met David, I heard his name mentioned reverently by his colleagues in history and by those who were involved in launching History Day as a national project. Just having such a distinguished scholar associated with the project lent it a legitimacy and significance that would otherwise have required years of effort to establish.
Many distinguished American scholars speak on behalf of improving education standards in the United States. David devoted much of his career to that cause and, as the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) has recognized, the nation has benefited profoundly from his efforts. I was honored to have been associated with him in that endeavor.-Douglas W. Foard, Secretary, The Phi Beta Kappa Society
I have been a teacher for twenty years, and all twenty years I have been involved with National History Day. My very first year of teaching a co-worker approached me about a project her own children had done...After a child with a learning disability teamed up with a bright student to receive superior rating at districts, I was hooked. Every one of my kids could complete this project, and every one could be successful.
I almost didn’t have these experiences in Iowa...I thought I was attending my last National History Day the year the retiring coordinator asked me to go and attend the competition in his place … I found myself at a lovely dinner seated next to David Van Tassel. I told him about our plight, and my fears for the History Day survival in Iowa. He exclaimed that this couldn’t happen and we had to keep Iowa active.
That was my only personal contact with David Van Tassel, but the State Historical Society of Iowa began working with National History Day that fall, and have expanded it to many times larger than it was ten years ago. I don’t know how to account for how many students might not have had a chance to participate in this great experience had he not intervened. If he could do this for one teacher in one state, I can only imagine the kind of impact his life had on so many others. -Kathy Paul, Teacher, Johnston Middle School, Johnston, Iowa
David had so many interests. He was a truly innovative historian--just think of the many imitations of the Cleveland encyclopedia project. And he was, I know, a wise and trusted member of the community at Case Western Reserve University as well as a good friend and mentor to several generations of historians.
But for me David Van Tassel will always be Mr. History Day. It is hardly possible to overstate the importance of his work with this effort, which not only provided one of the few robust links between professional and academic historians and the public but also has been an extraordinary successful component of the history education reform movement of the last two decades.-Arnita Jones, Executive Director, American Historical Association
History Day inspires kids to expect a great deal from themselves, to get over fears (of calling up a complete stranger and asking to meet with them, for example), to realize that every story has multiple layers and many dimensions. It requires a great deal of time, energy, thought, so that when the project is finished, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride.
One of the things I have gained is the ability to form opinions and take action based upon thorough research. Because I know how to question, I believe I am a better citizen of this county. No blind faith or cynicism for me! History Day has made me see a strong connection between our past and our future. I feel it has contributed to my interest in social responsibility and justice.-Mattie Weiss, Former NHD Participant, Minneapolis, Minn.
National History Day has been the single most important influence in my academic and professional career...[David’s] quiet and thoughtful nature often stood in contrast to the frenetic educational energy he unleashed, but you could always see that he was the proud parent of something that had profound meaning for the teachers, parents, and-most of all-students he touched.-Tim Hoogland, Minnesota State Coordinator, National History Day
I am the proud parent of two students who have participated in the National History Day program for a combination of seven years. During that time I have witnessed the extraordinary benefits a student, their family, and others can reap from a child’s participation in History Day. The program has been the catalyst that encouraged my children to develop outstanding research skills and to greatly expand their critical thinking abilities.
My children’s participation in National History Day has taught our whole family that what happened in the past is affecting us today. We no longer think of history as a series of static events, but as an ever changing, interesting part of our lives...National History Day has greatly enriched our lives, has allowed my children to achieve well beyond our expectations, and continues to play an important role in their maturation.-Elaine A. Webb, NHD Parent, Pennsylvania
On behalf of all of us at The History Channel we feel privileged to salute the memory of David Van Tassel...As we are intimately involved in the public’s interest and respect of history, we truly can appreciate the magnitude of David’s legacy. His work will not be forgotten and he will remain one of our heroes.-Abbe Raven, Executive Vice President and General Manager, The History Channel
I never knew David personally, but I felt as if I did from the many wonderful reverent stories I have heard about him. More importantly, I suppose, I felt I knew him from the influence he had had on my life.
My experience with National History Day began in 1989 with my first NHD project, an individual performance about Elizabeth Blackwell...It was then that I really learned what history was all about. I dropped my plans to pursue international business and focused instead on history and secondary education in college. I wanted to affect lives as much as my own NHD teacher had affected mine. It was the best most fulfilling decision of my life.
Doing NHD as a participant is inspiring, but it doesn’t compare to watching your own student discover history. As a student teacher, I had the good fortune to work with one of my AP (Advanced Placement) students as she developed her first NHD project. To watch her come back to NHD as an intern and volunteer with the national staff has meant more to me than I thought possible.
Now it seems that we have come full circle. While sitting at [a table] at National History Day 2000, David’s influence was pretty obvious and heart-warming. A new generation of NHD leaders filled several large tables with the energy, enthusiasm, and memories that are David’s legacy--nearly all of us past NHD participants who can’t seem to get enough of History Day. … Three of us realized that we all three had been together as National History Day finalists in 1990. We probably even traded the buttons of our respective states. Who knew then that when we would meet again a decade later, we would be the ones with the responsibility of making sure the next generation of NHD participants had the life-changing experience that we had in 1990? Wow...so many of us who fell in love with NHD as students are now back to make our own small contributions to the program. What a tribute to what David accomplished!-Crystal Johnson, Director of the Chicago Metro History Education Center and Former NHD Participant, National History Day