Jefferson lives

At Thomas Jefferson's University, it's hard to walk around Grounds without being reminded of his enduring presence.

But Peter Onuf, a Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, is brought into contact with Jefferson more often than most. After all, Onuf does have a tropically garbed bust of Jefferson, complete with sunglasses and pineapple, atop his desk.

"It actually perfectly expresses my feelings for Jefferson," Onuf said. "I wouldn't go out and create a shrine for Jefferson -- I don't mean to be disrespectful -- but I'm having fun with it. It's about where Jefferson is for me -- he's on the table, I have to deal with him. He is what we make of him -- literally, we dressed him up in a tropical costume with a pineapple on his head, but that's maybe a way of [showing] the Jefferson I have constructed for my own edification."

Onuf grew up knowing that he wanted to be a professor. His father was a Fulbright professor in Egypt, so Onuf spent his last year of high school and first year of college in Cairo.

Onuf returned to the United States to attend Johns Hopkins University, taking graduate courses in history as an undergrad, but eventually dropped out because he was "bored."

From there he served in the army briefly and worked as a newspaper reporter.

"What I didn't like about newspapers [was] the ephemerality of what you're doing," Onuf said.

After getting married, Onuf realized he wanted to get back into history. Finishing up his degree at Johns Hopkins, his first teaching job was at the University of California, San Diego in 1974. From there, he taught at colleges throughout the country, ranging from Columbia University in New York to Southern Methodist University in Texas. A year before coming to the University, he taught at University College, Dublin as a Fulbright professor.

Currently, Onuf has been teaching at the University for 15 years, this semester's courses including two undergraduate seminars conducted in conjunction with Oxford University. He also teaches a regular course on the Age of Jefferson.

But when Onuf arrived at the University, he wasn't a "Jefferson expert." Monticello began increasing its research around the same time, and Onuf has since been involved with the program.

Onuf also cited the 250th celebration of Jefferson's birthday in 1993 as a part of his education on Jefferson. A conference was held at the University, producing a volume, "Jefferson Legacies," which Onuf edited.

"I always say my standard reaction about Jefferson is that I'm deeply conflicted -- I don't love him, I don't hate him, but I feel strongly about him," Onuf said. "He generates strong feelings, and that's potentially a source for exciting thinking. Finding how to deal with Jefferson has been fun -- it's been an interesting challenge. I keep thinking I'm going to reach a point of no return, but the amazing thing is, I keep going back to him."

Onuf admitted that he didn't find history, in the sense of battlefields and museums, to be very interesting. What did interest him, however, was using history to think through important issues.

"I don't care particularly about the history of the University," Onuf said. "It was a failed experiment in its own time; all it did was produce a bunch of Confederates during the Civil War. But it's a wonderful place now, and the University has used their ideal of Jefferson, [which is] easy to do -- he had wonderful ideas, he was very eloquent and he believed that knowledge would change the world. ... If you want to go through Jefferson to engage with important things, then I invite you to join me."

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