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Remembering PMVB Advisory Board Member Ruth Piwonka

I am sorry to report that our esteemed colleague Ruth Piwonka died on August 2.

It is impossible to overstate how important Ruth has been to the study of Columbia County's history. More than anyone else, she was responsible for establishing the centrality of Columbia County's role in the early history of New York—even, one could say, of America. The former executive director of the Columbia County Historical Society and Kinderhook's longtime municipal historian, Ruth studied and presented local history from every perspective: politics, culture, architecture, the environment, population, the arts, and business. She was in constant demand as a lecturer, curator, and preservationist. She was dedicated to protecting the environment and rural character of Columbia County through the Columbia Land Conservancy. Among the many books she wrote and cowrote were A Visible Heritage, Columbia County, New York: A History in Art and Architecture (1996); Remembrance of Patria: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America, 1609-1776 (1988); and the invaluable Portrait of Livingston Manor, 1686-1850 (1986), a book we consult regularly at the Van Buren Papers as we document Van Buren's role in the history of Livingston Manor. Her work was celebrated as recently as last September, when she was named the 2020 Martha Washington Woman of History, an award given annually "to a woman who has made a contribution to the history of the Hudson Valley through education, promotion, or preservation." That sums up Ruth.

On a personal note, allow me to share how indispensible Ruth has been to my research and understanding of Martin Van Buren. Most books about Van Buren gloss over his childhood and resort to those hoary stereotypes of the "sleepy little village of Kinderhook" where he was born and raised. Ruth had no patience for these tropes. "Whatever you do," she said to me in one of our first conversations. "Don't call Kinderhook 'sleepy.' " When I once suggested a daft theory that perhaps Van Buren was a bit insecure about his Dutch origins in such an Anglo-Saxon world, Ruth replied, "Oh no. And if you write that, I'll be very disappointed in you." I scrapped that idea quickly. She was delightful company: kind, funny, and interesting. But if I said something she didn't agree with, she let me know. Right away.

I'm hardly the only one enriched by her work: in most of the books I've read about Columbia County and the Hudson Valley, the authors thanked Ruth for her time and generosity. Ruth had the finest qualities in a historian: curiosity, doggedness, and a deep aversion to laziness and clichés. She never stopped asking questions and always pushed me to challenge my assumptions. Ruth Piwonka was five feet tall, but she was a giant in her field. I intend to carry on her example and spirit in my book and in the work we all do at the Papers of Martin Van Buren.

Our sincere condolences to Ruth's family.

—James M. Bradley

Photo Credit: Jacob Leisler Institute for the Study of Early New York History Facebook page

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