Thomas Staley, director of Harry Ransom Center, to retire


Marshall Nolen

Harry Ransom Director Thomas Staley announced his retirement Monday after 25 years of employment collecting and acquiring rare literature and art for the university. During his retirement, Staley plans to continue exercising his love for literature by beginning to write again.

Stuart Railey

Since taking up the role of director of the Harry Ransom Center in 1988, Thomas Staley has personally helped make humanities research a more tangible facet of education for UT students. The Ransom Center now houses approximately 45 million items in its archives, many of which have been acquired by the director himself.

After a 25-year tenure, Staley announced plans on Monday to step down from his position at the research institution.

“I always think that [for the things you love], you have to bring something to the table as well as take from it,” Staley said. “I hated to leave, but it’s time — I want to write again.” 

Prior to assuming his current position, Staley worked as Chair of Modern Literature and Provost for the University of Tulsa. When he visited the University of Texas in 1980, he said was captivated by the “entrepreneurial” spirit of Texas and the school’s untapped network of benefactors, scholars and other resources.

Staley’s undeniable affinity for collecting was apparent from an early age. Starting a small library in grade school, he charged his friends late-fees in order to purchase more books and fuel his fascination with literature. By his sophomore year in college, the work of James Joyce caught his attention and Staley discovered that his plans for law school no longer appealed to him.

“I’ve got books everywhere. I keep getting them. I know I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway,” Staley said. “The value of a book and the nature of a book is aesthetic, but also very visceral as well.”

To say that Staley enjoys books would be an understatement. The corner office that he will occupy until August is itself a small museum. Surrounded by all kinds of sculptures, literary dissertations, signed photographs and other artifacts, Staley stakes out what he calls  “a peaceful way to live.”

“Whenever you’re around him, the energy level goes up,” said Larry Carver, head of the Liberal Arts Honors Program. “He’s been the second reincarnation of Harry Ransom.” 

A close personal friend and admirer of Staley, Carver argues that the director carried on Ransom’s legacy of bringing culture and arts to the people of Texas.

“More than anything else, what Professor Staley has done is opened the Ransom Center … I remember when he first came, it was a fortress over there,” Carver said. “People didn’t go in and it was kind of cold and forbidding. [He was] a breath of fresh air.” 

According to Staley, the magnetic reputation of the Ransom Center often makes acquiring new manuscripts and pieces of art a smooth process. In cases where acquisitions are more difficult, however, Staley resorts to rather unconventional tactics. 

In one particular instance that occurred a few decades ago, Staley and a few colleagues managed to purchase an archive of Stuart Gilbert’s scholarship in France. The small group knew that they would have to get past unfriendly French customs. Hiding the manuscripts in a small bread truck on Holy Thursday, Staley’s crew transported the artifacts to a British airport. The Gilbert collection later turned out to contain over 12,000 Swiss Franks and missing excerpts from other works. 

Stephen Enniss, the new hire poised to take Staley’s position, is familiar with the director’s work and has expressed excitement to carry on Staley’s vision for the Ransom Center. 

“I would sometimes arrive in London and hear that Tom Staley had just been there,” Enniss said. “I wondered if Tom ever arrived in Dublin say, or another city, and heard that Steve Enniss had just been there. But we were definitely doing very similar work and have known each other for years. I’ve always admired the good work that Tom has done.”

In the coming years, Staley will retain his position as a professor of English, teaching undergraduate honors students and writing his memoir. 

“We try to make literature live here at UT, and it does. [The documents are] a living embodiment of what we do,” Staley said. “This museum is value added, if you want it.”

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Printed on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 as: Ransom center director retires