Mary Thompson–Advice for Research Historians

What is your name? Any nicknames?
My name is Mary V. Thompson (I never changed my name when I got married, because I was 41 at the time and everyone in my field knew me by that name–it was too late to change it). My dad sometimes calls me Dolly; my brother used to call me Sissy. In high school, I was known as “the little dynamo.” My next-door neighbor in grad school called me “Masha” or “Mashinka,” which is my name in Russian. My husband has always called me “Catwoman” (sometimes I wonder if he remembers my real name).

What do you do for a living?
I am the research historian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, which is located across the road from Mount Vernon. Started working there in 1980, as I was finishing up a master’s degree in history at the University of Virginia. I spent 18 years in the Curatorial Department and have been part of the Library staff for 19 years now.

How old are you and where do you live?
I’m 62, but still feel about the same as when I was in high school (only physically creakier), and I live in Alexandria, Virginia.

Where can people find you on the Internet?
They can find me on LinkedIn.

Most interesting place you’ve visited?
Egypt. I’ve been there twice and would love to go back.

Favorite meal?
Meatloaf, macaroni & cheese, and green beans. Next favorite would be a really good burger.

Pet peeve?
The fact that the world is run by morning people.

It sounds like you’re not a morning person. Can you tell us what that’s like?
I enjoy the night, because it is lovely and quiet. Can get a lot of reading or writing done without interruptions (or watch movies that my husband doesn’t like). Working 9-5 (or in my case 9-6) is very difficult–I don’t really wake up until about noon, even if I am at work. I tend to get a second wind about 4PM and often work until about 7PM.

Favorite book, or movie, or television show?
Favorite book: There are too many, but let’s say “Jane Eyre.”
Favorite movie: Again, so many I love, but I guess it would be “The Trap” with Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham.
Television show: I Love Lucy.

If people want to pray for you, they could pray for….?
Better health.

Are you married or have you been? Any kids or pets?
I’ve been married for almost 21 years.

No kids (was told at 33 that I wasn’t able to have any; thankfully I found someone who didn’t care about that).

Pets: Currently have a 15 year old calico Persian cat, who is my baby and incredibly sweet.. A few years ago, had a dog (West Highland White Terrier) and three kitties, but we lost one kitty about four years ago from congestive heart disease at 13, and last year lost the dog (3 weeks before his 18th birthday) of kidney failure, and about five months later lost another kitty (age 17) from kidney failure, as well (he never really got over losing the dog, who was his best friend). Will be getting a new puppy once I retire.

One thing many people don’t know you can do?
Belly dancing.

Oh, that’s a wonderful mental picture. Where and when did you learn to belly dance?
Started learning in high school and then took lessons here in Alexandria at one of the local rec centers.

If you had any spare time, what would you do with it?
When I retire, I’m looking forward to doing more at church–I’d like to sing in the choir and/or play in the orchestra; would also like to do more cooking at the homeless shelter (have done that some with my Sunday School department and love feeding people).

Can you tell us some interesting things about yourself that aren’t already covered?
I play flute, recorder (alto and soprano), dulcimer, and one-handed piano. I make really good: scrambled eggs with cheese; green enchiladas; and chili. I’m addicted to gummi bears.

Can you give us some advice for research historians?
It’s really important to be interested in everything. Sure, you may love history, but historians now are expected to produce tables and charts to quantify their findings, so you have to be good at math. Reading in fields like sociology and anthropology can be really helpful, because those books and articles might give you an idea for a new angle or approach that might be useful for a history question you are investigating.

One of the fields I’ve worked in for several decades now is historic foodways, which has involved trying to make foods based on 18th century recipes. It’s a lot of fun, but knowing how to cook prior to taking on this project was really important. So just keep open to other fields and new ideas.

Thanks much, Mary. We appreciate you letting us get to know you a little bit.