Nabb Center’s Dr. Ray Thompson retires

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Dr. Ray Thompson, director of the Nabb Research Center, holds a vintage typewriter in the center’s extensive collection of Eastern Shore artifacts. (Brice Stump Photo)

Just a few days ago, Ray Thompson closed his office doors for the last, walked down the flights of stairs and departed Holloway Hall at Salisbury University.

The professor, who taught ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian history for 44 years here, is now making history. Thompson retired June 30.

If he were “just another doctorate retiree” from the administration, his leaving would be routine.

While Thompson came to the university as an unknown, he leaves behind a legacy that benefits everyone on Delmarva now, and for generations to come.

He is the co-founder and director of the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University. Consequently, over the years, Thompson has become a living legend among his students, those in the academia community and amateur and professional historians.

How two people transformed the very personality of the university from the most humble of beginnings is a story that began with two professors wanting to help their students with a unique and creative concept.

Engaging students

The college was changing in the 1970s, from a teachers college to a comprehensive liberal arts college.

“Many of the students coming here interested in history degrees didn’t want to become teachers,” Thompson recalled. “They wanted to know what other opportunities were available.

“Sylvia Bradley and I took it upon ourselves to come up with a new curriculum that would engage students and keep them enrolled in classes which they otherwise would not have been in had it not been for our ‘public history’ program,” he said. “We wanted solely to enhance the educational mission of the university particularly for students interested in history.”

Thompson described “public history” as a field of research where students use records, materials and resources from a local viewpoint.

“It’s a different way to look at history, not just from the political and military perspective. Public history involves archaeology, anthropology, social and cultural development of an area, and that’s what led us to create, at that time, what we called the Delmarva Historical Archives.

“At the time Sylvia Bradley was teaching American, Colonial and British history. We became and still are very good friends,” he said.

Spark from obituary

“Students were attracted to the way we both taught history,” Thompson said. “Sylvia and I worked well as a team in the History Department. We both shared a concern for our students. We wanted to help them by developing a program in history to meet their needs.

“This was not about ourselves as the degreed people, looking down on students as unknowledgeable. We treated them with respect.”

The spark for a special curriculum came about in a most unusual way: A spark in a Bible.

“It was my grandmother’s, and in it was a clipped obituary from a newspaper for a Sarah Elizabeth Kelly Ennis of near Snow Hill. She was born in 1825. I knew nothing about her other than she was my great-great-grandmother,” Thompson said.

Then the educator discovered he had roots on the Eastern Shore that could be traced to the 1620s.

“When my wife and I came to the Eastern Shore from Kansas in 1972, I had no idea that I had ancestors who lived here. While we were unpacking our boxes, I was putting the Bible on a shelf and that clipping fell out. It was a serendipitous discovery,” he said.

It was a discovery that would lead to the creation of the most prestigious research center for regional history perhaps in the nation.

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Dr. Ray Thompson. (Brice Stump Photo.)

Thompson pursued the research on his ancestor and the trail eventually took him Northampton County, Va., to the old courthouse in Eastville.

“I found these remarkable records and I never heard that they existed. I found out that those records telling a different story about history than what we had been told in our American history books. I discovered there was more to our national history than the New England story of how America developed,” he said.

“I told Sylvia we should use those original records somehow in our class. The records in Eastville are the oldest continuous records in British-speaking America. Word soon got around about our interest in regional history and people started supporting us with money, providing records, microfilm records. Then we received a microfilm reader machine for our offices where we were developing our new program.

“We wanted this new program to be for, and about, the students,” Thompson said. “Then we discovered that it could be shared with the community outside the university.

“Then people started coming in to use our records and little by little by little the collection grew. More material started coming in so fast we filled our two offices and expanded to four on the second floor of Holloway Hall.”

Historical archives

In 1982, Thompson and Bradley approached the then-college president, Thomas Bellavance, to discuss the creation of the Delmarva Historical Archives. In 1992, the archives was moved across campus to what was the college’s Band Building on Power Street.

The name remained the Delmarva Historical Archives, until about 1997, when Cambridge attorney, Edward H. Nabb, approached the research center with a $500,000 matching-funds endowment.

The name was changed, at the benefactor’s request, to the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

That building, which folks in the community knew best as “The Nab Center,” was the central location for research, but the collection of material was soon being stored in 23 rooms around the campus. Many of the artifacts are housed in the basement of Blackwell Library.

Said Thompson: “We started out looking for documents, but artifacts tell an important part of the story to. The basic collection of artifacts didn’t happen until around 1995. Heirlooms, ledgers, letter, artifacts, stoneware, spinning wheel and even clocks, cherished for generations by many Eastern Shore families, were given to the center.”

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Dr. Ray Thompson displays a rare and unusual broom or brush made from a single stick. It is in the Nabb Center’s collection of artifacts donated by Eastern Shore families. (Brice Stump Photo)

 

In late August, the Nabb Center will relocate to the main campus, in a dedicated facility, on the fourth floor of the new Guerrieri Academic Commons.

“All the collections will finally be together in one place,” Thompson said.

National reputation

“People from all over the nation come here to use our resources. Almost all of them have ties to Delmarva,” he said.

“What we teach students about local history here, can be taken anywhere in the nation and apply it. I know people associate me and Sylvia with the Nabb Center, and that we are co-founders, but  I don’t think either one of us thought about this as being ‘us.’  We just wanted to show that what we were doing was worthwhile in the curriculum and programs we developed.”

It is remarkable that some much of what has happened came about because of a obituary clipping floating from the pages of a Bible. Thompson and Bradley changed so much for so many because of a scrap of newspaper.

Over the last 40 years, Thompson has become the face of the Nabb Center. To tens of thousands of people across Delmarva, the university simply is “The Nabb Center.”

Thompson, because of his personality and passion for regional history has endeared himself to so many over the years. He came to teach, and now leaves as the man who made history by creating one of the most prestigious centers for regional historical research in the nation.

 

For his service to the people of Delmarva, Thompson was named the recipient of the Maryland Historical trust Award for preservation, named the first recipient of the Distinguished Faculty Award given at the university.

He has also received two National Endowment in the Humanities Awards, and has served on the Governor’s Advisory Board to the National Historic Publications and Records Commission.

For Pat Taylor, chairwoman of the Pemberton Hall Foundation, and a former member of the Nabb Center’s Board of Directors, Thompson’s contributions to the community and university have set a gold standard.

“Through Ray, Salisbury University has a unique research center. It’s not just for the students, but for the community at large. If anyone has deep roots on the Eastern Shore, chances are they will eventually come to the Nabb Research Center for information about their family history,” Taylor said.

“Fortunately, years ago, he visualized the importance of having a central ‘records warehouse’  for the three states that make up the Delmarva Peninsula. The center has a first-class collection of original and primary records. He has enhanced the prestige of the university, not only among Eastern Shoremen, but for historians across the nation,” Taylor said. “I just can’t say enough good things about his contributions to his students, the university and to his community.”

Fifty years from now, few people will likely remember the names of most professors who served the university.

Yet in 2066, thousands might still know the names of Bradley and Thompson as the two who worked together for the preservation of the history and culture of our Eastern Shore.

Contact Brice Stump at shorehistory@gmail.com.

 

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