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History professor awarded Guggenheim fellowship

The Guggenheim Fellowship, one of the most prestigious academic grants in the country, has been awarded to a University of Richmond history professor. He plans to use the grant to write a book with the help of his students.

Woody Holton, a Richmond faculty member since 2000, is the third Richmond professor to win the Fellowship. Bill Cooper, former president of the university, also won it before coming to Richmond.

Holton, who had applied for the Guggenheim Fellowship once before, said he did not expect to win.

"The odds of getting it are so small, I kind of sent that one off and forgot about it," he said. "So it was a real pleasant surprise when I did get it."

This is the 84th year of the Guggenheim competition. Winners are given grants to help with research and academic projects.

"The Fellowships are awarded to men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or creative abilities in the arts," according to the Guggenheim Foundation Web site. This year, only about 7 percent of applicants received grants.

One of 190 award-winners from Canada and the United States, Holton will use his grant to finish writing a book about Abigail Adams. The grant covers one semester's worth of his salary, which will allow him to take next year off from teaching to focus on the book.

His interest in Adams developed while he wrote his last book, "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution," about the Constitution and bond speculation.

"She made a killing off the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787," Holton said of Adams.

Most bond speculators at the time were male, so Adams' gender made her story even more interesting, he said. On several occasions, for example, Adams claimed to own property, which a married woman could not do at the time. Holton's book will be a "cradle-to-grave" biography of Adams.

Although Holton will take time off to finish the book, his students at Richmond have influenced his work significantly, he said.

"My students really helped me write [my last] book and they are helping me with the Abigail Adams book right now," he said.

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One student, freshman Katie Moyer, pointed out some of the subtleties in Adams' love letters, which Holton intends to write about in his book. He said he plans to credit Moyer in the footnotes, as he has done in the past with other students.

"Professor Holton has told the class from the very first day 'I want you to find something that no one else has found before and make it your own,'" Moyer said.

She said she had stumbled across her discovery, but credited Holton's teaching style with helping her form her own ideas.

"Dr. Holton really promotes a conversation in class and lets his students come up with their own arguments," she said.

Holton's fellow faculty members have also been very helpful throughout the process of writing his book.

"My colleagues have really covered for me on this project," he said. "These things are team efforts."

Hugh West, the history department chair when Holton was hired in 2000, said he was proud of his friend's accomplishment.

"He's bold, so he says what he thinks--and he is an amazingly hard worker," West said of his colleague. "He likes to communicate with the general public, so he doesn't write books that only other scholars will read."

Although Holton said that his last book was not exactly "beach reading," he hoped that his new book would reach a variety of audiences.

"The most fun and the most intimidating challenge in this book is to try to reach a wider audience," Holton said. "I want this to be on the table at Barnes and Noble."

Holton said he plans to finish his rough draft by January of next year, and hoped that the book would be released in the fall of 2009.

Contact reporter Reilly Moore at

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