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I looked up the definition of “legacy” this week and was surprised that Webster lists money or property as the first meaning of the term. In fact, I was saddened by that discovery.

While I have been more fortunate than most and will have both money and property to leave to my family, my life’s goal has been to concentrate on the second, more general definition of the term. Literally “anything” we leave to the next generation is the broader meaning of legacy.

My thoughts turned in this direction as I walked to the National Archives Building with my wife Hayden, my daughter, and my two granddaughters on Monday of this week. We were there at the request of the youngest member of the family who had recently learned about the Declaration of Independence and wanted to see it for herself. We were coming from a weekend in Baltimore to see friends and watch our beloved Orioles take on the New York Yankees, so a stop in Washington on our way home was possible.

As we strolled down 7th Street and looked up at the east façade of the building, I read the inscription to the family. It had always greeted me as I walked from the train at Union Station on my morning commute. It reads,

This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.

Money? Property? No. So much more. The documentary heritage that is the foundation of our republic. Our national birth certificate and all the evidence of the dreams, struggles, mistakes, and corrections we have undertaken as an imperfect union.

Having toiled in the National Archives vineyard for over three decades, I still have the connections with colleagues and dear friends who can slip me into the rotunda before the public arrives. As I observed so many times when accompanying special guests into John Russell Pope’s Temple of Democracy, even seven-year-olds immediately fall silent when entering this sacred space. The dramatic Faulkner Murals, the soaring domed ceiling, the dim lighting, and the cool temperature on the hottest of summer days create a climate of reverence worthy of the Charters of Freedom.

The look on the face of my littlest historian was priceless as we approached the encasement for the Declaration of Independence. Her grandmother had prompted her to look for the famous signature of John Hancock, writ large so that King George could read it “without his spectacles.” Now faded, our little one immediately spotted it and joyfully pointed it out.

Legacy. The joy of rediscovery of all that has been discovered before. The joy of fitting the pieces of history together, maybe in a new way with new conclusions for the future.

The morning gave me the chance to retell the stories that I have shared with visitors over the years. I picked up a new one from our guide, a story that I will share as my own in the future. History after all is a wonderful story and the legacy is in the retelling. It is my heartfelt hope that in the tapestry of memories that my grandchildren have of “Popsie,” Monday morning will stand out as a special one. If my career at the National Archives achieved nothing else, that would be worth it.

As I spend time in retirement relaxing, and then relaxing some more, I do it without guilt or shame. I worked hard in my career and never had a doubt as to why I was toiling in that place. Slogging through flooded stacks all night long to save records in a dramatic water event, walking the halls of Congress to track down a committee chairman and beg for a vote, explaining the inexplicable foibles of my fellow employees or rogue researchers to the American press, or informing a powerful Senator of yet another discovery about his fallen brother, I always tried to protect that Old Ship and ensure both its integrity and its survival.

I never dreamt that the evil of a rogue President could endanger my Archives home in a more dangerous way than fire, flood, theft, or insufficient funds. Higher threats require greater courage and we have been blessed by a generation of leadership not ready to give up our legacy.

It was during the televised funeral of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that I first heard Denyce Graves sing Gene Sheer’s composition, American Anthem.

All we’ve been given by those who came before, The dream of a nation where freedom would endure. The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day,

What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?

Let them say of me I was one who believed, In sharing the blessings I received. Let me know in my heart when my days are through, America, America I gave my best to you.

Whether it be with our life’s work, our study of history, our reverence for facts, or our vote, may we all be able to say the same.


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