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Jan Ziolkowski Remembers Ned Keenan

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 10:59 am | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

The present director of Dumbarton Oaks, Jan M. Ziolkowski, remembered his predecessor and colleague, Ned Keenan, in an obituary written for the online publication, Harvard History, on March 9, 2015:

Edward L. Keenan died on March 6, 2015. Known as “Ned” to intimates and colleagues, he served as the sixth director of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, from 1998 to 2007, and as the fourth consecutive to be appointed from the ranks of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Among Keenan’s multifarious contributions to Dumbarton Oaks was a thoroughgoing capital renewal project for the main campus that resulted in a multiplicity of newness: a five-story library, a central heating and cooling plant, and a building for the gardening staff, as well as renovated quarters for administration, facilities, security, the museum, publications, and most other departments. With equal measures of pride and melancholy, Keenan joked that the library would likely be the last built in North America. The architect for the multi-year project was the celebrated Robert Venturi, and obtaining the permissions necessary for its fulfillment was a story told vividly in an oral history interview preserved in the virtual archives of the Dumbarton Oaks website. Keenan also acquired for the institution a former home of Elizabeth Taylor’s, which replaced as the director’s residence what is now the refectory. Keenan’s projects and acquisition brought the research center into the twenty-first century, and fellows, staff, and directors of the institution will benefit from his foresight for countless decades to come.

Keenan arrived at Dumbarton Oaks with a long rap sheet of administrative experience at Harvard, where he survived more than a half dozen stints as associate director and director of the Russian Research Center, master of the present-day Pforzheimer House (then called North House), dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, among other things. He fulfilled most of these roles in phases of wrenching transitions, and he handled them all with great skill. Upon taking his final assignment for his alma mater at its elegant outpost in Georgetown, he deployed this background to excellent effect by rationalizing a reporting structure that in his words had resembled “a bowl of spaghetti.” After retirement in 2008 he moved mainly to Deer Isle in Maine, where he lived with his wife Judith (“Judy”), who survives him, as do his sons and her daughters.

Within the large and famous university of which Dumbarton Oaks forms but a small and remote part, Ned Keenan was a consummate Harvard man—but in his own distinctive fashion. Born on May 13, 1935, he remained in Cambridge continuously as an undergraduate (with a ’57 honors AB in Slavic Languages and Literatures), graduate student (PhD in 1965), and junior and senior faculty member (tenure in 1968), except for a couple of years in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, until he took up the directorship of Dumbarton Oaks. While being Harvardian through-and-through, he clung proudly to his background as an outsider from western New York State.

Keenan’s craft was history, and his specialization was medieval Russian history. Within his field he became prominent and controversial for various studies that sought to analyze and ultimately to disprove the supposed authenticity of major sources in East Slavic history. Two books, published more than thirty years apart, argue that two texts were not medieval at all, but seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, respectively: The Kurbskii-Groznyi Apocrypha: The Seventeenth-century Genesis of the “Correspondence” Attributed to Prince A. M. Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV (1971), and Joseph Dobrovsky and the Origins of the “Igor Tale” (2003). He also brought into print a number of seminal articles. His first article appeared in 1958, and his bibliography extended to 22 pages already by 1997.

Ned Keenan’s linguistic abilities were renowned, notably his native-level fluency in Russian, but also his facility in Spanish, an early love of his in foreign tongues. Beyond languages, he was also known for belonging to the first generation of early adopters, since he switched to using personal computers long before many of his colleagues even reached the point of asking secretaries to do the same instead of them.

A memorable raconteur, he expressed himself colorfully. Often he came forth with formulations that sounded proverbial. In fact, his interest in paremiology reached back to his undergraduate thesis on Russian proverbs. All the same, listeners might often be nagged by uncertainty as to whether the original of his wording was Russian, another foreign language, or his own creation. Ned Keenan was himself an original, with strong and shrewd convictions that he expressed with memorable wit, and he will be much missed by all those who had the occasion to benefit from his skill, erudition, and humor. With his death we have lost a person who not only liked to talk about where the dog lies buried, but who also knew the exact location of many such canine skeletons that will now pass forgotten.

Ned Keenan in the Dumbarton Oaks Director's Office
Ned Keenan in the Dumbarton Oaks Director's Office.
Ned Keenan performing an Irish jig
Ned Keenan performing an Irish jig.

Dumbarton Oaks Director's Residence (former home of John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor)
Dumbarton Oaks Director's Residence, former home of John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor.
The Dumbarton Oaks Library commissioned by Ned Keenan and opened in 2005
The Dumbarton Oaks Library, commissioned by Ned Keenan and opened in 2005.