Approximately 250 people came to the Newberry on May 7 to see Francis Oakley, Williams College President Emeritus and Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas, receive this year’s Newberry Library Award for his outstanding contributions to the humanities. The award was presented by Newberry Board of Trustees Chair Victoria Herget following a cocktail reception and dinner, co-chaired by Janis and John Notz and Michele and Peter Willmott. Janis Notz is a member of the Newberry Board of Trustees.
The Newberry Library Award was established in 1987, the library’s centennial year, and is itself a scale-model replica of a sculpture, titled “Umanitá (1987),” by the Chicago and Verona sculptor Virginio Ferrari, which is located at the main entrance to the library.
“Francis C. Oakley stands out as a rare exemplar of the teacher-scholar-administrator who has beautifully harmonized those roles while excelling in each of them,” said Newberry President David Spadafora in his remarks to the guests. “He has steadily taken up subjects that mattered profoundly in the past and that continue to matter today, and his work reminds us that we ignore such ideas, and their historical development, at the risk of failing to understand ourselves in 2012. And this is in many ways the center of what makes the humanities so important: the humanities can lead to individual and group self-understanding, and to decisions about what is meaningful and what our values shall be.”
An inspiring teacher and distinguished medievalist and historian of ideas, Dr. Oakley has written 75 articles and chapters and 13 books, soon to be joined by the second of his anticipated three volumes on the medieval emergence of western political thought. His 2003 book, The Conciliarist Tradition, received the Sixteenth Century Society’s Roland H. Bainton Prize. In addition to receiving numerous honorary degrees and Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal, he has been honored by being asked to give four distinguished lecture series, and by being elected President of the Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America.
“I am sorely tempted to brandish this splendid object as the very Oscar of medieval studies,” joked Dr. Oakely as he held the award. “But I’ll forgo that and simply affirm how touched I am and how deeply honored I feel to have been made the recipient of this lovely award. Research libraries, the Newberry proudly among them, make up the very engine room of humanistic scholarship. Without them, we’d be lost.”
Dr. Oakley’s leadership of important American educational and cultural institutions includes chairing the American Council of Learned Societies for four years, and then stepping in to be its President during a transition year. He chaired the National Humanities Center in North Carolina for three years and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute for seven, and he has been a Trustee of the Mass MoCA Museum and of Lake Forest College. Among his most recent contributions to the humanities are his service as co-chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators Project, and co-director of the Academy’s Initiative for the Humanities and Culture.
Born in Liverpool, England in 1931, Dr. Oakely did his undergraduate work at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and subsequently studied at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto and at Yale University, from which he received his Ph.D. in History in 1960. The next year he joined the faculty of Williams College, where he served as Dean of the Faculty for seven academic years and as President of the College from 1985 to 1994. Today he is Senior Fellow at the Oakley Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at Williams.
The Newberry Library Award is the highest honor that the library bestows. It recognizes achievement in the humanities in the tradition of the Newberry Library, which has cultivated the life of the mind across more than a century. In conferring the award, the Newberry honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the humanities, particularly in fields of endeavor related to the Newberry’s collections and activities.