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Professor Woody Holton wins 2010 Bancroft Prize

University of Richmond professor Woody Holton won the 2010 Bancroft Prize for his latest book, "Abigail Adams."

Holton, an associate professor of history and American studies, is one of three winners of the prestigious award. The Bancroft Prizes are awarded annually by Columbia University to authors of books about diplomacy or the history of the Americas, according to Columbia University's Web site.

"We historians would rather win this than the Pulitzer Prize," Holton said about the Bancroft Prize.

Holton received a phone message March 15, 2010, from a man that simply said, "I want to discuss the Bancroft Prize with you," but he did not say Holton had won it. He said he had been anxious to return the phone call because it could have been about anything.

"All these other thoughts were running through my head," Holton said. "Like 'Oh maybe he wants a letter of recommendation for someone else who's a candidate for the Bancroft.' So I was pretty much flabbergasted when he told me that my book had won."

Holton said he had been surprised he won for "Abigail Adams."

"My previous two books I spent 15 years on both of them," he said, "and I didn't expect to win the Bancroft Prize for either of those, but I expected if I was going to win it would have been for one of them. This one I wrote in three years."

Though Holton was stunned at this win, University of Richmond President and 2004 Bancroft Prize winner, President Edward Ayers, said he was not surprised.

"Not only does he have a wonderful reputation, but the book on Abigail Adams is beautifully written, original and significant," Ayers wrote in an e-mail. "It is hard to change our perception of a familiar figure in American history, but our colleague has managed to do just that — and do it with great style and sensitivity."

The Guggenheim Fellowship helped him complete the book quickly, Holton said.

"As teachers, we're evaluated on three things," Holton said. "Teaching is No. 1. Writing books and articles and such is No. 2. And service, being on committees, is No. 3.

"But to teach well takes a huge amount of time. I find it very difficult to write and teach at the same time so the Guggenheim Fellowship allowed me to have a year off."

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Holton also acknowledged the help he had been given from his History 100 students and other members of the university community.

"I taught [Abigail Adams] to a History 400 class which is our capstone history seminar and students had wonderful ideas in those classes," he said.

Though Holton does not explicitly say 'Thanks to my student ...' in the footnotes, he said he had thanked some for their insight by name.

Holton's award could have an even more positive impact on the university, said Hugh West, the history department chairman.

"This is one of the biggest prizes around," West said. "This is a major prize and it helps the reputation of the school to have someone in our department recognized in this way. It's a major accomplishment."

Holton said he would travel with his family to Columbia University on April 21 to officially receive the prize.

Contact staff writer Kate MacDonnell at kate.macdonnell@richmond.edu

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