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Mass. Historical Society’s Know-It-All Librarian

Sunday, July 12, 2015
Boston — Picture a woman on her own on a farm in Massachusetts, four children and the crops in the field. Her husband is hundreds of miles away and a war’s on, the American Revolution. The British are about to take Philadelphia. The husband is there as one of the colonists’ top thinkers.

She’s worried the fight will come to her. Gunsmoke, fields in flames, Redcoats grinning like they got this one. Then she goes into labor and gives birth to a baby who is already dead.

“It never opened its eyes in this World,” she writes. Heartbroken, she says her eldest child is equally devastated and “mournd in tears for Hours.”

The anguished author is Abigail Adams writing in 1777 to her husband, John Adams. Telling her story is Peter Drummey, the librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which has been called the most important repository of American manuscripts outside the Library of Congress. Drummey is the joyful evangelizer, eager to spread America’s greatest story. And he picked Abigail as his North Star.

She opens a window on the American Revolution like no one, not the generals, not the guys carved in marble, Drummey says. Writing about her most intimate painful moments, she draws generations into the story, keeping the birth of a nation fresh.

“This is a most human thing, losing a baby, an experience some huge portion have had,” Drummey says, while offering a tour of the Historical Society, a six-story building in downtown Boston.

Here in acid-free, low humidity stacks are 13 million pages of the personal letters and diaries of men and women who helped create the world we live in.

They include the definitive collection of letters between Abigail and John, some 1,200 over 40 years. Represented too are other former presidents, senators, ambassadors and many wonderful unknowns. A diary written by a 9-year-old girl tells of life in Boston just before the Civil War.

Drummey listens to the voices large and small. For 37 years, he has worked in this concrete monolith not a quarter mile from Boston’s Fenway Park, often pedaling the four miles from home on his bicycle. He lives in the city’s Jamaica Plain section with his longtime companion, Celeste, an historical editor, and their Scottish terrier, Campbell.

You’d never guess by looking at him that he was a troublemaker in school or an Army sergeant in Vietnam. He wears brown round spectacles, shirt and tie, going about his day unerringly polite to those who would seek counsel with his encyclopedic brain. He is careful in his passions and opinions — “I don’t want to overstate this” is an oft-used preface — and still rather amazed he’s paid $100,000 a year to safeguard a definitive body of America’s vox populi.

Walk the corridors with Drummey. You won’t get far without stopping. Every painting, every bust summons a tale that makes the visitor want to say: How do you know all this? In store here are a pair of General George Washington’s epaulets, a 1912 Red Sox World Series medal, innumerable curiosities.

The real stars are three documents locked behind a black-iron gate in the fifth-floor stacks. To wit, a first copy of the Declaration of Independence so rare that only 26 exist, a draft written by Adams that contains the antislavery clause that was eventually taken out and the Declaration written in Jefferson’s hand to make sure friends and colleagues knew what he had done before the Continental Congress made changes.

The items are sacred, Drummey says. He takes them out only a few times a year and together they are worth “on the order of tens of millions.” When the three went on display last year at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts only a few blocks away, they had to be insured for the trip for more than $20 million.

Priceless. No match for Abigail.

She was a minister’s daughter who bore six children. Four lived to adulthood including her eldest son, John Quincy, the second president in the family.

Her husband gone for years, she confessed a deep loneliness. This, from a letter in 1782: “Yet a cruel world too often injures my feelings, by wondering how a person possesst of domestick attachments can sacrifice them by absenting himself for years.”

She was his intellectual equal, a feminist before the word existed. She urged him in drafting policy to “remember the ladies.” Flashing her sense of humor, she reminds him “that all men would be tyrants if they could.”

Drummey sees in her a sparkling wit, and something of a kindred rebel.

He was born and raised 35 miles south of Boston in Duxbury, Mass. His mother was a nurse, his father a construction worker who paid the bills in the offseason harvesting clams and scallops.

The second of four siblings, Drummey brands himself the black sheep. While he worked since age 12 picking cranberries and moving lawns because the family needed the money, his academic life was less than impressive.

He was thrown out of high school three times, the last for not standing in class to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I didn’t want to do anything I was told,” he recalls.

He was bored with it all except history, he says. He spent hours at the public library. He devoured Hemingway’s war novels, convinced that Papa’s prose set him on a course for Vietnam. He was 18 when in 1968 he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served 16 months, transporting heavy equipment, rigging parachutes and training soldiers how to use them.

Returning home, Drummey moved to western Massachusetts. He let his hair grow long, lived communally in an old farmhouse and worked in a daycare center taking care of children. Eventually he landed in New York City, where outstanding scores on an entrance exam for Columbia University led to a big scholarship. He earned a history degree in just three years.

Graduating in 1977, he also finished up a one-year program in library service and came back to Boston, where he was hired as a temporary manuscript processor by the Historical Society.

Today he’s less manager and more ambassador, lecturing, organizing exhibits and answering the toughest of research questions.

David McCullough’s tip of the hat to Drummey as “incomparably knowledgeable” in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams only begins to explain the respect he has amassed. And though retirement is not something he’s planned, a stint with the Peace Corps is not out of the question when he does.

Until then, Drummey leans on Abigail to tell of America’s start, a story he says could only be rescued from the complacency of the modern age with a woman whose humanity reminds us how much is still at stake.

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