Monday, September 12, 2011

Dr. Edgar E. MacDonald (1917-2011) - Scholar, Co-worker, and Friend.

Edgar E. MacDonald, 1998.

Dr. Edgar E. MacDonald (1917-2011) died last Thursday, September 8, 2011.  

Dr. Mac., as we called him in Special Collections and Archives, was a literary scholar and long time English professor at Randolph-Macon College, from 1953 to 1984. 

In his role as Senior Cabell Scholar at VCU Libraries, Dr. Mac. was the longest serving staff member in Special Collections and Archives at the James Branch Cabell Library.  He began that relationship in the late 1980s when he was asked to write a biography of James Branch Cabell. After his research on Cabell was completed and the book published in 1993, he stayed on, working in the mornings in the department for a total of nearly 25 years. 

He spent most of his time in the library writing on various aspects of  Virginia literature, genealogy, and Richmond history. Much of what he wrote would be published in a variety of periodicals. He also wrote essays for, and edited, the newsletter of the Friends of the Virginia State Archives of the Library of Virginia. He had spent much time in the old state library building (when it was called the Virginia State Library and Archives) doing genealogical research. Edgar never forgave the Commonwealth for moving the Virginia archives and library across Broad Street into a new "monstrous" building. He also didn't like that they changed the name of the institution to the "Library of Virginia." He said many times they should have left the word "Archives" in the name.

Dr. Mac., along with long time VCU English professors Maurice Duke and E. Allan Brown, are credited with convincing VCU in 1968 to name its Monroe Park campus library after Richmond author James Branch Cabell. Dr. Mac. also helped pursued the Cabell family to donate Cabell's personal library - a collection of some 3,000 books and other papers - to the library.  They are now housed in the Cabell Room located in Special Collections and Archives. He also helped revive scholarly interest in another Richmond native, Ellen Glasgow.  He founded the Ellen Glasgow Society in the early 1970s, edited its newsletter for 10 years, and helped organize panel discussions on her life and work at numerous college English seminars.

Over the course of his lifetime he lived in many parts of Richmond and had memories that he shared with library staff and others about those neighborhoods. His earliest memory was of playing in a sand box in Monroe Park. He last address was the Prestwould apartment building located directly across from the park. 

Dr. Mac. at his desk - composing as always.
2010 photo by Maurice Duke

I often said of Dr. Mac. that he knew "all things Richmond." That included most aspects of Richmond history but especially the cultural history of the city's elite of the late 19th and 20th centuries. He seemed to know, or knew of, most of the prominent figures of Richmond during his life time. When you walked down the street with Edgar, you could point to an old house  and ask him who one lived there and he often could name 2 or 3 of its former occupants. I learned so much from him about Richmond history and its people.  Everything I know about Cabell and the literary world that made up 1920s Richmond I learned from Edgar. He was like a walking Internet search engine.

Over the years Dr. Mac helped library staff, students, professors, and others with numerous research topics. He knew of obscure articles or other publications that might help the researcher. Most often the best information he shared were his own memories on events and topics. He seemed to have a bottomless memory of interesting stories. 

He loved challenging people too.  Many times he would walk up to a staff member or student worker and ask them, "So... what's it all about?"  He liked hearing someone else's take on life and its mysteries.  His own theories constantly changed. The one constant was that he said he was an agnostic - but "a hopeful one."

Dr. Mac. loved opera and on several occasions he would take a library staff member to the Carpenter Center as his guest.  But he knew pop music and popular culture too. He knew the words to many 1960s songs including "Do You Believe in Magic?" by the Lovin' Spoonful and several  Bob Dylan songs. He would sing them as well! And I'm sure he was one of the few 90 something year-olds who had any idea who Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, and Sandra Bullock were (he liked them all). 

He loved writing, he loved conversation.  

And he adored cats. Throughout his life he had a series of them and in the 1980s he got a license plate that listed the first letter of all of their names (about 7 if I remember correctly).

He didn't mind pointing out the faults of others - but he was quick to point out his own. 

His obituary appeared in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch.  The obit. says his favorite author was James Branch Cabell.  While he enjoyed Cabell's work, his favorite author was actually Ellen Glasgow.  He could always find a place to quote her in just about anything he wrote - even in an article on some arcane aspect of genealogy. He knew her work inside and out (he would strike that last sentence because it was a cliche - he was a great editor too).

Edgar MacDonald was a real delight or as he would sometimes say of others, "utterly charming."

He was our co-worker, a professor we learned much from, a man we cared for, and our friend.  He will be greatly missed.  

- Ray 

VCU has just posted a News Item about him.  Randolph Macon did the same thing yesterday.

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