Rob Vaughan, nursing a cup of morning coffee, recently looked through a window at an autumn-tinged lawn where wonderful things have occurred.
As the only president the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has had in its nearly 40-year history, he has been instrumental in bringing these memorable things to pass in the grassy area outside his office. One day a year, the lawn serves as a stage on which the heart and soul of some of the most precious Virginia traditions are showcased.
Old-time fiddle tunes that have rippled through the coves and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains for centuries have been played. A ham-handed bear of a man once brushed tears from his eyes while telling an enthralled audience what working with a team of draft horses has meant to him.
Native Americans in traditional clothing have danced on that grass, and others have demonstrated the art of shucking oysters. All the while the air was perfumed by the scent of simmering Brunswick stew and deep-fried apple pie.
The annual Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase has become a tradition for VFH, which specializes in Virginia traditions old and new. Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program, started the Folklife Apprenticeship project soon after joining the foundation more than a decade ago.
The program pairs a master and an apprentice for a year. During this time, an art form — be it music, crafts or stories — is passed from one generation to the next.
The program is but one star in a constellation that VFH has created through the years. Since its inception in 1974, VFH has produced more than 40,000 humanities programs for communities throughout the state.
"I think everybody understands that sciences are about the physical world," said Vaughan, who has made the foundation his life’s work. "I don't think everybody understands that the humanities are about the human world, the human experience and the way we live, work, play, talk together and answer questions and resolve issues.
"It's about the way humans experience the world, and how we interact with each other. When we started in 1974, we established a theme, or organizational principle.
"That is, we were interested in the individual and the community within the changing world of the commonwealth of Virginia. Even now, if you look at the kind of things we do, we want to engage people and the communities in the state, and involve them in the humanities and provide an understanding of our history, culture and traditions."
VFH was an offshoot of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which was created in 1965. One of the first things the new organization did was explore possibilities and opportunities to create state programs that would involve citizens of individual states in the humanities, beyond what already was being done at colleges and universities.
Individuals in leadership positions were sought out throughout the country and its territories to help usher this ambitious vision into reality. In Virginia, the go-to person was Edgar Shannon, who at the time was president of the University of Virginia.
Shannon assembled six people to do the initial groundwork. The group of six later was expanded to 15, which became the initial board of VFH. At the time, Vaughan was at the university completing work for his doctorate in English.
"President Shannon called me out of the blue, or so I thought," Vaughan said, a smile coming to his face. "When I got to his office, I discovered he had my entire dossier.
"He asked if I would work with him to help plan the
creation of what became the foundation. I said I would, because it sounded intriguing to me for any number of reasons.
"I was assigned for five months to work with the group, and after my commitment ended, they asked me if I would be willing to come back if it got funded. Without hesitation, I said I would — and when it got funded, I agreed to come back for three years. That I'm now approaching my 40th year here flabbergasts me."
The planning for the underpinning of VFH started on Jan. 21, 1974, with $15,000 in seed money. It became an organization in September of that year, when it received $200,000 and instructions that basically said: See what you can do with this money.
The first thing that was done was to create a small grants program, which for the most part was what the other state humanities programs were doing. Grants, typically in the $5,000 to $15,000 range, were made to some community colleges and universities, but mostly to museums, public libraries, civic organizations and city and county governmental organizations.
An example is a grant given to the new Eastern Virginia Medical School and Old Dominion University to come together to talk about ethics and medicine. The conference and ensuing community discussions ultimately generated a small book on the subject.
To date, the foundation has been instrumental in generating hundreds of books, ranging from "Remarkable Trees of Virginia" to "Endangered Species: Watermen of the Chesapeake." It sponsors the Virginia Festival of the Book and also the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, which symbolizes in a way what VFH is about.
"I love it that we have a letterpress studio and workshop, as well as digital publications," Vaughan said. "The fact that those two things can coexist and work together here is an achievement worthy of some recognition.
"The Book Center recently created some miniature books with our press. A book dealer in Austria purchased three sets of the miniature books for $1,000 a set.
"When we made the Encyclopedia of Virginia public several years ago, one of the first two people to visit the site was from Russia. So we're now engaging a much broader community than we could have imagined 39 years ago."
Vaughan said the foundation conducts good statistical analysis of what it does. Last year, it documented all its different activities and programs, and came up with an audience figure of more than 20 million people.
Even taking into account that some of these people were repeats at various places and events, it's a mighty healthy number. The Encyclopedia of Virginia, which was launched in 2005, is a major player in pushing the tally into the millions.
"The encyclopedia is an extraordinary success, and we're still building it," Vaughan said. "It's nearing close to 25 percent completion at this point. It will be a forever document, because it's digital, but a teacher could print a textbook from it if he or she chose to do so.
"It's used extensively in schools, which we intended. It's a scholarly, authoritative, well-documented work, and we attested to its quality at the outset. It has text, visual images, photographs and everything from live recordings to old recordings.
"One of my favorite recordings is of President Franklin Roosevelt when he visited a CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp in the mountains near here. Another is of Rita Dove reading a poem.
"There are now five people on the staff who work on it. They are doing things like editing, engaging experts in the field to do the writing and approving what is done."
The foundation has 42 full-time staff members, and they tend to stay put once they arrive. Next to Vaughan, Andrew Wyndham has logged in the most time with 38 years.
Wyndham is the director of VFH's Center for Media and Culture. Two of his star performers are the radio programs "With Good Reason," hosted by Sarah McConnell, and "Back Story with the History Guys." The guys are historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh.
"We're now up to 75 communities around the country, including Chicago, that are now picking up 'Back Story,' " Wyndham said. "The audience has really responded to it.
"That's exciting, because the goal has been to create a national conversation about American history, and to look at the triumphs, challenges and not-so-happy parts of our history as well. The hosts are wonderful scholars, who also approach things in a very accessible way and have fun with it.
"What working here has meant to me is that I have been able to be deeply involved intellectually in a lot of areas. And also having the opportunity to reinvent myself in ways that, I hope, have created programs that are useful and meaningful to the general public."
Vaughan said that "For Good Reason" has proved so popular that it's being extended from a half-hour to a full-hour format. The weekly program focuses on interesting things that are going on in Virginia's public colleges and universities.
The topics and conversation are so interesting that stations as far away as Alaska Public Radio broadcast it. And it has been doing so for eight years.
David Bearinger is the director of grants and community programs at VFH and has been there for nearly 30 years. He called the foundation a magical place to work.
"Within the staff here, we have people like Rob, Andrew and me who have been here a long time and seen a lot of changes," Bearinger said. "And we also have very talented younger people who are much newer to the organization and who bring in fresh ideas.
"The combination of that seasoning and freshness, I think, is a creative mix."
Vaughan said VFH's expenditures this year will come to about $5.9 million. Last year, it raised $8.2 million, and this year nearly as much.
The money comes from sources such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the state, UVa, private foundations, corporations and individual contributions. These dollars have been used to document the cultures and traditions of Virginia, be it the recorded history of rockabilly music in the state or quilt making.
The lawn of wonder where many of these traditions have been celebrated also has showcased things one might not associate with Virginia — things like the art of master Mongolian mask maker Gankhuyag Natsag, or colorful costumes created by master Caribbean Carnival costume maker Earl Blake.
"Some of the new traditions come from China, Greece, Guatemala, Nicaragua and African countries," Vaughan said. "Those traditions are now Virginia traditions, and I really want people to know that.
"I remember talking with Jon some years ago about hot rods. I thought, 'Come on now, Jon, is this really a folk tradition?' He said it was — and he was right. These are people who have this as their hobby, their avocation, and it's absolutely fascinating what they do with these things.
"It's like the Brunswick stew makers. It's people who have been working in these traditions, sometimes for generations."
Although Vaughan will turn 70 this coming June, he has no plans to retire. He's too busy looking to the future.
"Certainly one of the things we've been thinking and talking about is the future of digital and the humanities, and how that can work for a place like this," Vaughan said. "One of the things we're trying to develop now is a useful access point for people around the world to get to what we do.
"And also provide this for small museums, historical societies, libraries and other kinds of organizations that don't have the resources and staff to create their own repositories, archives, websites and these kinds of things.
"One of the ways we have decided to develop new activities and programs is with the goal of reaching new groups of people. We want to bring new audiences into what we do so they can appreciate the humanities and what they contribute to American life."
To learn more about the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, go to www.virginiahumanities.org.