BY CLINT SCHEMMER

John N. Pearce has been many interesting places and done many unusual things.

But even in the course of his long and eventful life, he hadn't experienced anything quite like what happened yesterday.

Pearce, the Fredericksburg historian who was the heart and soul of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library for 23 years, got a bit of a surprise.

He visited a former student's home on Lewis Street, and came away about an hour later with a medal--an award from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The society's local Overwharton Parish Chapter persuaded the NSDAR that Pearce richly deserved its History Award Medal, a special honor given to only seven Americans this year.

The chapter's regent, Diana Wallace Perrussel, presented the award--a small gold medal hung from a red, white and blue ribbon--to Pearce, and pinned it to the left lapel of his blue blazer.

"So, am I now really a Daughter?" Pearce responded with a twinkle in his eyes, knowing the answer was, Not quite. "I've been working on that all my life."

His student, Lewis Street resident Judy Barton, had the brainstorm and did the legwork that secured the medal for her former professor.

She was "tickled pink," Barton said in an interview, when word came that the 121-year-old society had decided that Pearce's accomplishments qualified him for the award.

A letter of recommendation from Barbara P. Willis, the Virginiana librarian at Central Rappahannock Regional Library, spoke to both points.

"John's love for the University of Mary Washington and for Fredericksburg and its surrounding area is well-known," she wrote. "As important has been his ability, by his warm and supportive personality, to encourage others--especially young people--to also love and preserve the history of this area."

Willis has known Pearce, now 76, for more than 40 years, and served as a member of the board of regents of the James Monroe Museum. She credited him with placing that institution "in the top ranks" of the nation's historical museums.

Willis also praised Pearce's years of effort to restore the 1849 building that houses St. George's Episcopal Church, where Pearce loved to sing in the choir, and to document the church's history.

She and Pearce worked together for years to research older properties on and near Washington Avenue and to place them on the state and national historic registers. And they created a walking-tour brochure for visitors to the district.

Carter L. Hudgins, then the Hofer distinguished professor in the department of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington, wrote the DAR that the award was "entirely fitting" given Pearce's three decades of devotion to "the cause of history" in Fredericksburg and a quarter century elsewhere before that.

Hudgins paid special note to Pearce's longtime leadership of the Monroe museum, saying, "John accomplished great things, pulling an organization that had few modern capabilities into the mainstream of museum practice."

Barton said she thinks one of the refreshing things about Pearce is that he isn't a horn-tooting self-promoter. He's widely known for his quick wit and jovial nature.

But the chapter's nomination, in 20-plus pages, lays out more of his good works:

Creating the only annual Welsh festival on the East Coast, in honor of President Monroe's Welsh ancestry.

Raising funds to restore the 18th-century graveyard at Charles and George streets--the oldest Masonic cemetery in America and the second-oldest burial ground in Fredericksburg. It is the resting place of many prominent members of the region's Colonial era.

Helping to create the James Monroe Presidential Center.

Acting as UMW's liaison for the "Enchanted Castle" site in Orange County where royal Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood established early 18th-century colonies of German settlers, fostered an iron-making industry, and later built his mansion.

Contributing to a number of publications, including "Images of a President: Portraits of James Monroe," "Images of Brookland: The History and Architecture of a Washington Suburb," the Dictionary of American History, and the Encyclopedia of World Art. He also wrote "American Painting 1560-1913" and a history of Lyndhurst, a Gothic Revival home in Tarrytown, N.J., owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

UMW's board of visitors awarded Pearce emeritus status last May. He retired in 2010 as director of the Monroe museum--the nation's premier institution devoted to the study and interpretation of the life of the fifth president of the United States.

Born in Baltimore in 1935, Pearce received his bachelor's degree in American studies from Yale and a master's in early American culture from the University of Delaware's Winterthur program.

Before arriving here, he was an assistant curator at the Smithsonian Institution, state historic preservation officer for Maryland, and director of George Washington University's graduate program in historic preservation.

He served the University of Mary Washington for 27 years as a lecturer, professor and, eventually, director of its Center for Historic Preservation.

Pearce's health has suffered since he had heart-bypass surgery and received a defibrillator in 2004.

However, he emailed an acquaintance recently, "I'm creaky, but the head's still working--especially on my work to create an electronic update to 'The Library of James Monroe.'"

James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library: umw.edu/jmmu

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

Email: cschemmer@freelancestar.com

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