State Historian Walter Woodward Considers the Past as He Looks to the Future

After 18 years, with a hand in everything from school curricula to podcasting, Connecticut's fifth state historian looks both backward and forward

State Historian Walt Woodward (UConn Photo).

State Historian Walt Woodward (UConn Photo).

In his latest project, State Historian Walter Woodward is researching the history of the Office of the State Historian and what each of his predecessors brought to the role that was created in the 1930s when Connecticut celebrated its 300th anniversary.

This is the last UConn academic project for Woodward, an associate professor of history who’s set to retire at the end of the semester, which means that in an ironic twist not only will he record what the four previous state historians accomplished, but also what he’s achieved – putting him in a true position of reflection.

Woodward’s early professional career started with the writing of country song “Marty Gray,” and continued with the sale of an advertising jingle to a shopping mall as a senior in college. He later escalated up the executive ladder at an Ohio ad agency and eventually founded and sold a marketing company. There were many awards and accolades along the way, but something was missing for the man who says history “was an avocational passion from the time I was a kid.”

Woodward came to academia in mid-life, when he earned his Ph.D. from UConn in 2001 and then taught at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He returned to UConn in the capacity of state historian in 2004, earning tenure as a professor and influencing state public school history curriculum and the ways Connecticut history is conveyed to the masses.

Recently, he spoke with UConn Today about his accomplishments, advice for his successor, and what Connecticut has to celebrate as it approaches its 400th anniversary.

You had quite a career in advertising and music in Cleveland and Nashville, why the switch to academia and why Connecticut?

Connecticut was important to me because I was born in Austria and I lived in Germany until I was about 10, but my father was from Connecticut. We would come home to the United States every summer for an extended visit to my grandfather’s house on Columbia Lake, so as a boy I kind of imprinted on this vision of America as a beautiful lake, cottages beside a stream, a New England church, the village green, and all the family stories around the campfire. My America was New England and specifically Connecticut. My historical interest leaned toward New England from the early days and when I decided to become a historian professionally that remained the focus of my interests. The switch to history was after very happy and successful careers in music and advertising. I was not only ready, but I was able, to say, ‘OK, I can make this switch to become an academic.’ I’ve always felt that if you were doing the thing you loved you had a much better chance of success at it.

You’ve used the marketing and promotional skills from early in your career to enhance the public face of the Office of the State Historian. What do you see as your greatest accomplishment in this position? 

My mission has been to connect the people of Connecticut with the fascinating and fabulous history of this state in ways that don’t come naturally in our educational system. When I got here, we were teaching Connecticut history, if at all, in the earliest grades. It’s wonderful to get exposed to Connecticut history in the third grade and maybe the eighth grade, but there’s so much about the history of the state that you can’t really understand when you’re that young. I saw my job from the minute I took it to be to use all the skills I had - my historical knowledge, my communications skills from marketing and advertising - to try to help the people of this state connect with their history in ways that they would find engaging, interesting and meaningful, and that would stimulate them to either learn or do more. From the beginning I had a very active outreach schedule - public talks, work with teachers, and as a state historian you serve by appointment and by invitation on a variety of boards and commissions. It was after achieving tenure that I began to incorporate technology, like social media, podcasting, and web-based communications. I began to work with other people in developing a lot of the tools that I think have been the most effective in helping the public engage. In Connecticut Explored magazine, I started early on doing a column. After that came a podcast, “Grating the Nutmeg,” which every two weeks covers a new topic on a Connecticut history subject, or book, or museum exhibit, or some aspect of the state that people haven’t known. Finally, the thing I think has had the broadest reach and perhaps the most impact has been the “Today in Connecticut History” program, which is a series of website, email, social media, and broadcast media stories. There is a story about some event that happened every day in Connecticut history. There are daily spots on Connecticut Public Radio and recently we’ve begun to add other radio stations to it.

What about your outreach into the community? 

At one point about four or five years ago, I dusted off my musical background and put together a band with Jeremy Teitelbaum - who’s a UConn mathematics professor and was acting provost for a while, he’s a great banjo and guitar player - and Rachel Smith, who was then my assistant; Teagan Smith, her best friend; and Duke York, who’s a legendary bass player, and we formed a band called the Band of Steady Habits. I would develop visually rich lectures, so the audience heard and saw a Connecticut history story accompanied by songs that are either from the period or reflect the story being told. It’s a multimedia history experience and another way of helping people engage with Connecticut history. Much of what I’ve done as state historian is trying to take the communication skills that I acquired both in the music business and in the advertising industry and put them to work in helping meet that mission of connecting people to the history of the state. For several years, I also worked with Alan Marcus at the Neag School of Education on Teaching American History grants to give intense annual teacher training on how to bring Connecticut history into the classroom. As part of that we got involved with the State Board of Education’s revision of the state curriculum. I am proud to say they incorporated into the last round of the frameworks a quasi-requirement that when you teach American history in Connecticut you use as many examples as possible from Connecticut history to tell those stories. That I feel is a kind of a victory.

With only five state historians on record, you’re in an exclusive group. Do you have any advice for your successor? 

As my last academic project as state historian, I am working on a history of the state historians of the state of Connecticut; they’re a fascinating group of scholars. My study has shown that each state historian has shaped the job in ways that match both their interests and their strengths - and every single one of them has done it differently. In my opinion, it’s an honor to be historian of the state and there’s a certain responsibility that goes with that to try to make your work as state historian both useful and meaningful. I am certain that whoever succeeds me will have a set of interests and strengths they will hone, and it will shape their tenure in the position. To do it well it’s really a demanding job. You are the person people come to find out those obscure and esoteric things about Connecticut history. Nobody comes into this position or leaves it knowing everything that ever happened in Connecticut history. But if you take the job seriously, you will become deeply immersed in the history of this state. That is time-consuming, and then doing the work of communicating it to public audiences, to political audiences, to University faculty - this job can keep you as busy as you ever want to be and then some.

What’s ahead for Connecticut as it readies to celebrate its 400th anniversary? 

Over 400 years in Connecticut history there have been boon times and bust times, and there have been times of great social upheaval and great goodwill. But the one absolute constant in the history of Connecticut has been change, some predictable and some surprising. In post-industrial Connecticut over the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve gone through a period of figuring out how to adapt to a world when the things that used to work are not going to be sufficient to see us through the future. We’re still in the process of finding and creating the new Connecticut. In the early 1800s, the First Industrial Revolution became the answer for a Connecticut where the farms were tapped out, people felt they were overtaxed, and young people were leaving the state in droves. They discovered that waterpower could run factories and Connecticut could make things, and it became this transformative moment in the history of this state accompanied by political transformation and a whole array of changes. The quality of life changed dramatically. I feel like we’re in this same kind of era now. In 2050, those who were around in 2000 are going to be amazed at how different Connecticut is. Those transformations, the processes that you can see over time punctuated by the changes that take everyone by surprise, that combination is what keeps history interesting. And it’s what makes history so important. As a historian, you work to get a long view of those transformations, to better assess what’s going on, and what it means. I think the celebration in 2035 will be something like, “We’re still here, we’re still adapting, and we still have so much to look forward to.”