Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Thank You, David Shayt

I didn’t care what internship I got, just as long as I got one there. The National Museum of American History’s website listed the likely projects that each intern would be working on and the required experience for each position. I applied to every single internship that I even vaguely qualified for.

I was 19, a displaced Alaskan girl finishing up my first year at the hippiest of hippy liberal arts schools, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I had declared myself a History major immediately and was shocked to find myself one of maybe four in the school. I had some wild dream that I was going to teach high-school history in rural villages on the West Coast of Alaska.

It was 2002 and I wound up with an internship doing “object processing” for the one year anniversary exhibit of 9/11.

“Four people applied, but I thought that since you were from Alaska, you might be able to help more with some of these posters I collected,” David explained when I arrived for my first day. I thought this was doubtful, but he seemed pleased enough that I could find Kotzebue on a map without assistance.

With the eyebrows and voice of Eugene Levy, David’s lilting monologues on the history of Crayola’s color names and the functionality of silly putty were mesmerizing. He was fascinated and fascinating. The project David had brought me to work on, doing back-ground research and file building for four items collected at Ground Zero took me about three weeks. For the next three months I was directed along the path of the David Shayt School of Museum Studies, loaned out to anyone who would have me.

It was clear within those first few weeks that my internship was not like any of the other internships at the museum. Looking back, I’m certain David didn’t need an intern, but rather delighted in sharing his own passion and wonder. He told me how he had always loved the Museum of American History. He started out at 18 in the basement in the print-shop, back when all the materials for the museum were printed on actual printing presses. He did a stint in the Marine Corps, went to college, but then he returned to the museum. He wanted to be a curator, but he didn’t have a Ph.D., so instead he became an expert in all the things the museum didn’t have an expert in: bell casting, ivory carving, silly putty, crayons, coffin making, lunch boxes, wood-working tools, yo-yos, and on, and on, slowly building the curator position he had always wanted.

He showed me Foucault’s Pendulum, tragically stored in a wooden box. He let me touch Indiana Jones’ hat. He sent me to spend three weeks writing tiny catalog numbers on Julia Childs’ kitchen utensils. He sent me to the Library of Congress to do photographic research, which then turned into my excuse to get a LOC library card, granting me access into the holy of holies, the Jefferson Reading Room. He told me about Washington’s scandalous nipple. He took me into the bowels of the museum to see the old steam generators that used to pump life into the various industrial machines on display when the museum had been called the Museum of History and Technology.

He was in charge of making sure the bell in the tower of “The Castle” was in working order, so even though the entirety of the rooftops along the mall had strictly become off-limits in the post-9/11 world, we were allowed. We would go up and eat our sandwiches in the blessed breeze, looking down on the broad expanse of green grass and white marble.

I came out of his care confused, questioning, dreaming, in awe, and no longer a history major.

I ran into him six years later, surprisingly, in Juneau. He had come up for a museum conference that my boyfriend’s band was playing. I had crashed the party. I recognized him from across the room with his signature satchel bag and his smooth stride. He told me how enchanted he was by Juneau’s “gentle sparkling streams.”

I think about David several times a year. 

A few years ago I tried googling him to see if I could find an address to send a letter to him, to check in, to thank him for a strange and wonderful summer, but instead I found an obituary. So I wrote a letter to his wife, sent to what appeared to be her work address, trying to let her know that her husband had touched my life in a way that I couldn’t explain. How sorry I was for her family. 

How sorry I was that I had never told him.


  1. Erin, I am deeply touched by your whimsical and moving writing. Beautiful experience...and fun to picture you in the bell tower.

  2. Thank you for writing this!!
    -David's daughter
    Emma Shulevitz

    1. Hi Emma,

      Thank you so much for leaving this comment. I didn't know your dad well or for very long but I am so thankful for the strange and sort of magical summer he gave me. I feel like I've really only recently started to realize how much of an impact he had on me. I have a feeling that he touched a lot of people in the same way. Thank you for sharing him. :)