NARA Announces Death of Legendary Archivist John Taylor
Press Release · Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Washington, DC…John E. Taylor, a long-time archivist at the National Archives whose encyclopedic knowledge of World War II intelligence records and his ability to locate them made him legendary among students, journalists, authors, and historians, died September 20 at his home. He was 87.
Mr. Taylor had been in declining health in recent years, but was at work at the Archives’ College Park facility last week. A memorial service is planned for mid-October.
A National Archives employee for 63 years, Mr. Taylor joined the agency the week World War II officially ended in September 1945, before most employees at the Archives were born. Often asked when he would retire, his standard answer was, “Not this week.”
Over the years, Mr. Taylor assisted thousands of individuals -– from best-selling authors to college students -- researching books, dissertations, articles, and term papers. Researchers from around the world have cited him for his grasp of history, an ability to recall historical events, and where the records about them could be found.
Accordingly, he was approached with a near-reverential tone by young authors and researchers. Said one young Archives employee in a U.S. News & World Report article in 2003: “Mr. Taylor knows everything.”
Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein met Mr. Taylor first as a researcher himself.
"John Taylor was the first person I met at the National Archives many years ago while searching for a dissertation topic,” Weinstein said. “With me as with everyone, Mr. Taylor was generous with his time and with his ideas. His distinguished career brought honor to the dogged research enterprise which the Archives embodies. He is irreplaceable, of course, and he will be sorely missed."
Mr. Taylor was honored by a number of organizations for his work in assisting researchers. Among those awards was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Society Distinguished Service Award in 2006; the OSS was the forerunner of the CIA.
In 1997, the Japanese embassy honored Mr. Taylor for his assistance to Japanese historians and journalists over the years. The National Intelligence Study Center honored him for providing guidance to authors who write about U.S., British, and Russian intelligence. And the American Jewish Historical Society gave him its first “Distinguished Archivist Award” for a lifetime of work as an archivist.
The National Archives has a collection of 857 books on intelligence and espionage, based largely on research at the Archives, which are included in the John E. Taylor Collection. Most of them are signed by the author and cite Mr. Taylor’s help in the acknowledgements, and many were from Mr. Taylor’s personal library.
A Washington Times article in 2003 referred to Mr. Taylor as a “wizard of research” and “one of the least well-known yet most revered men in Washington.” At that time, he received a “lifetime achievement” award from the Scone Foundation, established by Stanley Cohen to honor important yet unknown professionals.
“He’s like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat,” author David Kahn (author of “The Codebreakers”) told the Washington Times, saying Mr. Taylor could produce “amazingly useful documents from the immensities of the archives (that) makes all of us writers look like wizards of research.”
Besides his work with researchers at the Archives, Mr. Taylor had direct contact with highly-placed individuals in law enforcement and intelligence, such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and CIA Chief William Casey.
Over the years, hundreds of authors have cited Mr. Taylor’s help in their research at the Archives. In a 2003 article, the Baltimore Sun observed: “There may be no [other] American whose name appears in the acknowledgements of so many books.”
At the Archives, Mr. Taylor handled records dealing with the War Production Board, intelligence activities in World War II and the immediate postwar years and with Nazi and Japanese war crimes.
Timothy Nenninger was working on his master’s thesis in 1967 when he first met Mr. Taylor, then again two years later when he was working on his doctoral dissertation. He then got a job at the National Archives.
“I was one of his gophers,” Nenninger recalls. But for the past 10 years, Nenninger was Mr. Taylor’s supervisor.
Nenninger said that despite Mr. Taylor’s failing health in the past decade, he was on the job in College Park to assist researchers with their work and point them to the records they needed. And if Mr. Taylor didn’t know where certain records were, he would refer them to one of his colleagues. “He clearly liked researchers,” Nenninger said.
Mr. Taylor’s routine usually involved an early arrival and a late departure from the Archives facility in College Park. There, he was ready to assist everyone who came to the Archives for his help.
Even though he knew where many, many of the records were filed in the Archives, Mr. Taylor never lost his excitement about the arrival of new records at the Archives, from his first day in 1945 onward. He worked at the National Archives Building in downtown Washington for 50 years, then moved to the new College Park facility, where he worked for the past 13 years.
“I remember walking from the front door through the stacks to 8W (one of stack areas), and what I noticed was the smell of the records,” he said in an oral history interview for the National Archives Assembly several years ago. “That was the first thing I noticed.
“After I had been there for a few days, or a few weeks, I started to open the boxes, of course, to see what’s inside all these boxes. I was fascinated, and I have been fascinated ever since.”
Mr. Taylor was born in 1921 in Sparkman, AR, and graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1945, but took the Civil Service exam while still a student. He was blind in one eye, which made him ineligible for military service.
After graduation he first went to Los Angeles, where his parents had moved. One day, he got a letter from the National Archives with a job offer. He took it.
“When I first got to Washington, I lived in a boarding house,” he said in a 2001 article in Washingtonian magazine. “It was coed, which I liked. I lived in a number of them. One of them was at 16th and R. As I was moving in, I saw two women upstairs. One said, ‘There’s a new boy moving in.’ And the second said, ‘I see him.’ That was Dolly, the girl I married six years later. We were married 44 years.”
His niece, Claudia Taylor Walsworth of Ketchum, ID, said she talked to him every week. “I’m so proud to say he’s my uncle,” she said. “His whole life revolved around his work.”
She said he enjoyed dining at Clyde’s Restaurant in Friendship Heights, just down the street from his apartment building. His favorite dessert at any meal, she said, was a Shirley Temple drink and vanilla ice cream. Also, she said, he “loved white coconut cake” and, even when it was difficult to get around, would make it to the nearby supermarket to get a piece to bring home.
In addition to his niece, he is survived by a nephew, James Lee Taylor Jr. of San Ramone, CA. He was predeceased by his wife, Dolly, and a brother, James.
In his long career at the Archives, Mr. Taylor came into contact with all kinds of researchers because he did what is called “reference work,” as opposed to projects that would involve little or no involvement with the public. In the oral history interview, he said he thought “projects” was a lonely job, so he did everything he could to avoid them, even risking the ire of supervisors.
“As a matter of fact,” he recalled in the interview, “one supervisor said to me once, many, many years ago, ‘Taylor, the problem with you, is you want to do what you want to do.’ I plead guilty.”
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