I met Paul Nagel yesterday

Like many truly great people, Paul C. Nagel is quiet and humble. He’s also witty and eloquent. I could go on, but since I’ve only spent an hour with him, I suppose I should leave those kinds of words to those who know him best. My friend Rich Cornell is one of those people. He’s been a friend of Dr. Nagel for many years and is currently making a documentary film about his life.

Rich Cornell and Paul Nagel

I have to admit that two weeks ago I had never heard of Paul Nagel. But when Rich asked me if I wanted to meet him and and then Paul invited us to his Minneapolis condominium yesterday, I was fully aware of how special the opportunity was.

Paul has lived his 80-something years to the fullest. Born in Missouri, he earned a Ph.D. in History at the University of Minnesota in the late ’40s. He became a professor of history, a college dean (University of Missouri) and then was named Director of the Virginia Historical Society. He wrote several scholarly books in the ’60s and ’70s, but by 1980 had decided to leave academic life and and write history books that had an appeal to the general public. His most well-known book is one about John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life - Paul Nagel's best-known book

Here is a partial list of his books.

George Caleb Bingham: Missouri’s Famed Painter And Forgotten Politician (2005)
German Migration to Missouri: My Family’s Story (2002)
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997)
The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family (1990)
The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters (1987)
Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family (1984)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1798-1898 (1980)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1776-1861 (1980)
Missouri: A Bicentennial History (1977)
This Sacred Trust: American Nationality 1778-1898 (1971)

Rich’s documentary film will be finished in a few months, but first he wants to do a couple more interviews with people who know Paul. Through the years, Paul has become friends with a lot of well-known people, not only in the academic and literary world, but also in politics and the news media.

Rich has asked me to interview one of those people for him because he will be out of town for a few weeks and will miss the opportunity. I don’t want to mention the person’s name yet, because it’s not 100% set to go and I don’t want to jinx it. But if it works out, it will be very cool.

Rich Cornell and Paul Nagel chat in Paul's living room

My hour with Paul Nagel yesterday is one I’ll never forget. We chatted like old friends, even though he didn’t know me from Adam. He wanted to know about my children, and really perked up when I told him my daughter, Emily, went to the University if Virginia and had a summer job as a tour guide at Monticello. He visited Charlottesville often when he lived in Richmond. I was quite touched by the interest he showed in me and my family.

Dr. Paul C. Nagel

Paul is a big person in all the important ways, and I’m grateful to Rich for sharing him with me. When we shook hands as I left, he said, “I’m so glad we had the chance to meet. Now I hope we can become friends.” I smiled all the way home.

(post script to this post — Jim Lehrer (PBS News Hour) was the special friend of Paul’s that I was fortunate to interview. Read my post about that experience here)

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3 thoughts on “I met Paul Nagel yesterday

  1. I’d like to meet him, too. I’ve read — but mainly heard — disparaging and dismissive words about Paul Nagel and his work on the Adams family. Academic and critical sniping is easy to ignore; that always goes on — this seems different. What’s going on?
    I’m an actor and perform: John Quincy Adams: “A Spirit Unconquerable! So you see: I have a dog in this fight. Mainly, I focus on the last ten years of JQA’s extraordinary life. I also lead tours one-day a week at the “Church of the Presidents” in Quincy — I know where the dead bodies are. I appreciate Nagel’s work. His view of my man seems valid. Perhaps the film will touch upon & answer my question?

  2. Jim, I understand your interest and appreciate your concern about the book. I have not read it yet (and have very little knowledge about JQA) so I can’t comment on Dr. Nagel’s writing. I look forward to reading it, however. I do know that on a personal level, Paul is a wonderful man and a thoughtful scholar.

    The next time I see him, I will ask him about the criticisms of his work on the Adams family.

    I would like to see your performance some time. I have no immediate travel plans to New England, but it’s on my list . . . I love that part of the country.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Thanks for your reply. I’ve read Nagel’s John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997) I like it; it shapes and informs my performance. I also listen to it on CD. What I’d like to know is why so many feel free to “diss” old Mr. Nagel? I’m a-gonna ask around and git to the bottom of this. Perhaps because he doesn’t quite sign on to the “Sainted Abigail” crew? Maybe. I know I don’t and yet I revere and respect her life and example just a little less than JQA does.
    I am willing to travel most anywhere. Our State Department sent me to Russia a couple of years back to mark the Bicentennial of our diplomatic relations.
    Another one of my men — President Calvin Coolidge will take me down to Arkansas this June for a Chautauqua on the 1920s. (I’d better be loaded for bear and on my toes for questions about the 1927 Flood.)
    One could almost say that J. Q. Adams was our first progressive president and Calvin Coolidge was our last conservative president. (I could say that.)

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