Charles Stanhope

Charles StanhopeCharles Stanhope
Class of 1971
French, Honors
Recently retired from the Library of Congress

Where did you grow up? Portland, Maine

Where’s home now? Southwest Harbor, Maine

Degrees: French, with highest honors, 1971

Milestones in your professional career after graduating from UMaine?

I am grateful for all of the opportunities my work gave me. I served as director of public affairs and director of fundraising, and retired as the assistant chief operating officer for executive operations.

How did you get your start at the Library of Congress?

I worked at the Portland Public Library in high school and college summers. When I learned the Dewey decimal system there, I never would’ve thought I’d be in the Library of Congress as a professional life.

At UMaine, I studied French and graduated with highest honors. After spending three years in the Army, concluding as a translator at Fort Meade, Md., outside Washington, I came back to Maine, then I went back to Washington to look for a job. I started working at the Library of Congress in 1975, opening mail in the gifts section, then I went on to Catholic University Library School and earned my master of library science in 1979.

In the early years, I had the opportunity to go into the intern program at the Library of Congress, which allowed me to work throughout the organization, from traditional things such as building the book collection, shelf listing and reference work for the public and the Congress, to preservation, organizing photographs and other curatorial things and working in the copyright office. I had the opportunity to see how such a diverse place comes together to create the national library. It’s kind of like a university, where different disciplines all come together.

How did your studies at UMaine prepare you for a career in the Library of Congress?

My parents knew I would need higher education. They wanted more for me than they had. I valued the opportunity I had because my parents didn’t have it. And that appreciation just continued to grow. I value creative people who do writing and scholarship. I value the life of the mind.

At UMaine, I learned that if you’re open to them and willing to grow, there are opportunities in the world. You’re not limited by the 16 counties of Maine. You never know where life will take you.

What were a few highlights from your time at the Library of Congress?

The people who are there truly value the arts, intellectual curiosity and history. It was just a wonderful place to work.

I had a great job, and through that, travel has become a really important part of my life. When I was able to travel to see the Academie Francaise in Paris, that was the thrill of a lifetime. These are people appointed by the government to preserve the French language. I loved seeing the splendor of what goes on there. I traveled to Russia, where I planned a visit of the library’s private sector donor group. It was so spectacular to stand on Red Square and to be in the Kremlin. I traveled to the Netherlands, France and England with David McCullough, who wrote John Adams’ biography. We were able to visit the treaty room in The Hague, where the cabinet convenes. It was where John Adams went to petition for financial support for the American Revolution. That was a wonderful connection with America, with the world and with history.

What’s the best-kept secret about the Library of Congress?

In the vastness of it, there are many things that nobody knows we have — even among ourselves. There are finds, such as a manuscript that’s 1,000 years old; there are so many absolutely wonderful things there.

What’s the biggest misconception about the library?

The myth is there’s a copy of every book ever published in there. That’s not true.

What’s the best thing about the Library of Congress?

To be in the room with documents where Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper, and to know that it’s always going to be there — that the country has made this commitment. When the librarian of Congress, Dr. Billington, signs an instrument of gift, he isn’t just signing it for the Library of Congress, he’s signing it for the United States of America. You can feel really good as an American citizen and taxpayer who sustains the stewardship of this place since its founding in 1800. Ideological disagreements arguments have not erased our historical record because the American people have preserved this resource.

During your career at the Library of Congress, were you able to make this resource accessible to UMaine students and alumni?

Each year, for spring break, students from the Honors College visit Washington, D.C. I always made the time to greet them and arrange for them to experience the working library — to see scholarship and creativity under way. I hoped to stimulate their intellectual curiosities in that way.

Tell us about your connection to the Honors College.

The opportunity to be in the Honors program at UMaine gave me broader exposure to intellectual curiosity. It took me beyond my chosen discipline, French, and gave me an appreciation for being an intellectually curious person.

You recently established an endowment in the UMaine Foundation that supports Honors students’ travel to study abroad. Why is this so important to you?

My work gave me many opportunities to travel, and I think that is the best education. Having seen distant places helps you understand what you love about Maine and what Maine’s place is in the world. I want Honors students to have the chance to go places where they can pursue their own intellectual curiosity as they pursue their studies.

You recently retired to Southwest Harbor. What’s it like to be back in Maine? Have you been able reconnect with your alma mater?

Everyone has been worried that I was going to miss the nation’s capital, but it’s really been fun. The opportunities to get reconnected at UMaine are invaluable. I now have the opportunity to serve on the Maine Arts Commission for three years. I’ve visited the Maine Historical Society and I may have the opportunity to be helpful there. I wanted to get back to Maine while I was still able to do something, and to be able to do it in Southwest Harbor is such a joy.

When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?

I really enjoyed the opportunity to perform with University Singers, so I spent some time in Lord Hall, which is where the music department was at that time.

Most memorable UMaine moment?

There were many. Passing my thesis — getting that done; many occasions with the University Singers; seeing really notable, legendary performers, including Pete Seeger and Louis Armstrong. I was at UMaine during the Vietnam War, and it felt like we were far away from Vietnam, but there was a lot of conversation on campus, both pro and con. The president of the university cancelled classes and we had a teach-in about the war, about Southeast Asia, for a couple of days. I celebrate that. That was a creative response, rather than burning flags. I thought it was the UMaine way to respond: in a very organized, controlled and enlightening fashion.

Favorite professor?

Olga Wester Russell. She was my adviser, and she took me under her wing for a year of reading sources before writing my thesis. I think the discipline she put into that effort with me became part of how I look at the world and how I do my work.

Class that nearly did you in?

Perhaps “funny book” physics, with Professor Clarence Bennett. It was physics for nonscience students. I am more curious now about improving my science education that I was as an undergraduate.

How did your UMaine experience shape you?

I believe in the value of public school, public higher education and public libraries. The things that America has created should be celebrated, valued, and sustained. My UMaine experience has equipped me to be a person who thinks about these things.

Best UMaine tradition?

I think the big Maine Hello tells everyone what a welcoming place it is.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have …

Probably forced myself to take more science courses.

If I hadn’t chosen a career at the Library of Congress I would’ve:

Become a French teacher — that’s what I thought I would do.

Why UMaine?

By default. I wanted to do French, so I really wanted to go to Middlebury, but my decision was strictly economic — I didn’t get any financial aid. My parents and I could afford for me to come here, and I had come two summers because the music department had summer institutes for instrumentalists and vocalists. I had been here, I had lived on campus, so it was not an unknown rhythm of what it would be like. That made it easy. And to our family, going to the University of Maine was a terrific opportunity.

How does UMaine continue to influence your life?

I am a person who is the product of a wonderful opportunity to learn and I’ve told everyone about it for years, and I’ve tried to pay that back by working with everyone here. Right now, I’m serving on the Honors thesis committee of Ben Fox, who was the first recipient of the travel grant I endowed. It supported his travel to study a year in France. I’m all about coming back here and making a difference. I take great pride in knowing that my alma mater is doing so many great things. I try to be an advocate for UMaine whenever i have the chance. I’m standing on the education I got here and it helped me have a great career, it helped me become the person I am. Now, I make sure to help talk it up to everyone to help carry that journey on.