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August 31, 2009

Senate Historian, CCNY Alum Donald Ritchie, Helps Report Ted Kennedy’s Story

The Historian of the U.S. Senate functions as its institutional memory. Last month, newly appointed Senate Historian Dr. Donald A. Ritchie, a member of CCNY’s Class of 1967, played a role in helping journalists report on the 47-year career of the “Lion of the Senate,” Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, who passed away August 25.

"Over the last month, I've taken a lot of calls from reporters regarding Ted Kennedy's long congressional career," said Dr. Ritchie, who last month succeeded Richard A. Baker in the post."The types of questions we received ranged from wanting to know how the Senate had changed over his 47-year tenure, what records he might have set, what legislation he sponsored, and what personal human interest stories we could provide."

Donald Ritchie

One such story, broadcast by CBS Evening News after Sen. Kennedy’s death, was a nugget pulled from the oral history interviews Dr. Ritchie conducts with senators and their staff as part of his job.

"It was the story of Michael Johnson, a young African-American living on Capitol Hill who sold newspapers in the Senate Office Building after school in the 1960s," he recalled. "Sen. Kennedy took an interest in him and paid him a dollar for every 'A' he got on his report cards.  Michael went on to attend Cornell and join the Senate staff--he handles emergency planning for the Senate's sergeant at arms."

The Historian of the Senate oversees the collection and distribution of information on important events, precedents, dates, statistics, and historical comparisons of current and past Senate activities for use by members and staff, the media, scholars, and the general public. Congress established the Senate Historical Office in 1975 in the wake of the Watergate investigation, and Dr. Ritchie is only the second person to hold the position.

In addition to helping journalists, the nonpartisan Senate Historical Office has been working with archivists on Senator Kennedy's staff and on the HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) Committee that he chaired, to transfer his personal papers to Massachusetts and his committee records to the National Archives.

Dr. Ritchie joined the Historical Office in 1976 after teaching stints at George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College and the University of Maryland, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in 1969 and 1975, respectively. He credits his CCNY mentor, History Professor Fred L. Israel, for inspiring his work. "He made me become a historian. He said I would enjoy it and could make a career out of it," he recalls.

Professor Israel was right.  A political historian who's written award-winning books on several subjects including Franklin D. Roosevelt, the constitution, the Senate and government, Dr. Ritchie relishes his job.

"It's a front row seat for the best show in Washington," he says. "I'm a political historian and when I walk out of the door I see all the cast."

Working out of the Hart Senate Office Building, it's not unusual for him to encounter Senators in the hallway or ride the subway to the Senate with them.

"It's a terrific place to be," Dr. Ritchie says.

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