SAA Remembers F. Gerald “Jerry” Ham


SAA Fellow, past president, and graduate educator F. Gerald Ham, 91, passed away on June 5, 2021, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Ham earned a BA in history from Wheaton College, where he met the love of his life—and his wife of nearly 68 years—Elsie Magill. He interrupted his formal graduate work at the University of Kentucky in 1955 with two years in the Army Counterintelligence Corps, during which he continued his dissertation research on a history of the Shakers, working two half-days a week at the Library of Congress. He received MA and PhD degrees from the University of Kentucky.

In 1964, he and Elsie and their four young children moved to Madison, where he accepted the position of State Archivist of Wisconsin and head of the division of archives and manuscripts at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In 1966, the University of Wisconsin's School of Library and Information Studies invited him to create a graduate education program in archives administration. The initial one-course offering expanded to a full degree program, and over the years he trained hundreds of students in the profession.

Ham served as SAA Secretary from 1968 to 1971 and as SAA’s 29th President in 1973–74. His presidential address, “The Archival Edge,” is among the most widely read and frequently cited articles appearing in American Archivist (Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 5–13, January 1975). He was elected a Distinguished Fellow of SAA in 1969.

In 1988, as part of the thawing relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, Jerry was invited to participate in the first-ever archivist exchange between the countries. He traveled to Moscow and Baku, meeting with local archivists and sharing the practices he developed and advocated for throughout North America. He retired in 1990.

In January 1998, Jerry and Elsie established the F. Gerald Ham and Elsie Ham Scholarship. The purpose of their SAA Foundation fund, endowed in 2008, is to provide financial support to graduate students in a professional archival studies program. To date, 16 graduate students have received $10,000 each in support of their studies.

For insights into Ham’s remarkable career and impact on the archives profession, see the article by John Fleckner, “Jeremiah to the Profession,” in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of American Archivist (Volume 77, Issue 2).

Ham is survived by his wife Elsie; three daughters; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and his two sisters. The family asks those who would like to honor his memory to consider donations to the F. Gerald Ham and Elsie Ham Scholarship, the Wisconsin Historical Society, “or an organization close to your heart.”

The Society of American Archivists invites you to share your remembrances of Jerry Ham below.

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Jerry Ham

I posted a brief note to the fellows list a couple of days ago, when I first learned through that medium of Jerry Ham’s and Bill Joyce’s deaths, but the many postings from friends and colleagues since made me want to add a second note about Jerry Ham.


I, like many of you, am deeply saddened and feel diminished by his death. Like so many others who have shared stories here, he changed my life and its direction from the day I walked into his office in Madison in 1973 or 74 as another wayward English major. It goes without saying, he taught me what it meant to be an archivist and gave me the opportunity for a life’s work that I have loved. 


For me,Jerry’s legacy is in the stories—his, which were often funny and frequently irreverent, and ours—students, colleagues and friends. Those stories reach across the country and span more than 50 years. In my memory, quite a few of these stories are associated with a Wisconsin roadhouse/motel called the JR Ranch in Hudson,Wisconsin. It was a way staytion on Jerry’s annual pilgrimage visiting the Area Research Centers at various college and University of Wisconsin campuses around the state. 


I don’t know whether it was Tim Ericson, who was then at UW-River Falls, or Jerry, or John Fleckner who called to invite me to join them for dinner there soon after I became the ARC Director and University Archivist at UW-Eau Claire, but it became an annual ritual that lasted well beyond that first archival job. When I moved to Minnesota to work for the Minnesota Historical Society, the dinner became an interstate one and some of my Minnesota colleagues joined the table. We shared cold Leinies, steaks, our working experiences, questions, local lore, laughs, stories, a common passion, and collegial fellowship. It was a sad day when I learned from someone in the group that the JR Ranch had burned to the ground and wouldn’t reopen. Today is sadder but also bittersweet.


Of course, like many local institutions you couldn’t hope to recreate the Ranch's atmosphere or the patina on its tables, and for health reasons maybe you wouldn’t want to.  For me it was the site of the best seminar I ever had. and it was just the kind of congenial setting that Jerry loved for teaching and trying out ideas and for pushing the archival agenda along in that neck of the woods and elsewhere. I’ve eaten in better restaurants or at least more expensive ones, but I don’t know that I have ever savored meals more. 


Jerry is well known and will be remembered for the papers he delivered at SAA meetings and these will be preserved in the American Archivist and in the Archives of SAA, but for me his legacy is best captured at those dinners and the one that Tim and others organized to commemorate his retirement that was attended by so many of his former students. Like me, they will probably always think of themselves, in part at least, as one of Jerry’s kids, part of his family, a branch on his professional and personal family tree. So here’s one more  toast for Jerry and for all his family, friends, and colleagues who have shared his journey.

Dick Cameron

Portland Oregon

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