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While getting his bachelor’s degree in journalism at James Madison University, Matt Wasniewski thought he was going to be a sports writer. After he went back to JMU for a master’s degree in history, he thought he was going to be a history professor.
He was wrong on both counts.
But he was wrong in the best way possible. Wasniewski was recently named the new historian for the House of Representatives after eight years of working for the Clerk of the House’s Office of History and Preservation.
Wasniewski’s appointment by Speaker Nancy Pelosi comes with the unanimous recommendation of a nonpartisan selection committee of historians as well as support from both sides of the aisle. While he was appointed by the California Democrat, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) expressed his approval in a statement last week.
Wasniewski, 41, first applied for the job in June, soon after then-House Historian Robert Remini announced he planned to retire at the end of August. After months of interviews, Wasniewski got the call from Pelosi’s chief of staff last week telling him the good news.
Since then, the change has been swift. He has been in meetings, looked at budgets and moved his office from one room in the Cannon House Office Building to another. There hasn’t been much time to discuss the details, but that will come.
Wasniewski thinks one of the best attributes that he brings to the position is his experience as a public historian, rather than an academic one. He has always cared about the anecdotes that better show the personality of the institution. Research and publication are just parts of the equation to him, not the key elements of what makes a historian.
“I want to make us as current and sharp and useful as we can be, not only to the Members and staffers, but to the public as well,” Wasniewski said.
For now, he just has a vision. He wants the Office of the Historian and the Clerk’s Office of History and Preservation to become more integrated. He wants to start more community outreach with places such as the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, where he worked after he got his doctorate from the University of Maryland. He wants to work closely with the Senate Historical Office.
Wasniewski took a rather nontraditional route to become House historian. His former professor, Skip Hyser, for instance, said he never would have thought Wasniewski was going to become a historian.
Wasniewski was in Hyser’s history methods class at JMU in Harrisonburg, Va., in the early 1990s. A journalism student from Alexandria, Va., Wasniewski had already finished his major coursework but needed to fulfill some credit requirements. At the same time, he was a gifted writer who had a passion for sports.
Wasniewski, who was then sports editor of the student newspaper, went on to work for the Fauquier Citizen, a small weekly newspaper in Warrenton, Va., for a year and a half. It was fun for a while, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as he had hoped.
When he sat down with Hyser to discuss coming back to JMU for a master’s degree in history, Hyser was skeptical.
“We need good sports writers in this world,” Hyser told him. Hyser thought Wasniewski’s understanding of historical context would make him a great sports reporter.
But Wasniewski’s mind was made up. He returned to JMU and then went on to join the doctoral program at the University of Maryland.
Looking back, Hyser said Wasniewski has always had the qualities that would make for a good historian: He was thoughtful, conscientious and considerate of others.
“If you can’t articulate your ideas very well or you can’t get along with people, then you won’t be efficient in your job,” Hyser said. “Luckily, that’s not a problem for Matt.”
After working on a dissertation about Cold War-era journalist Walter Lippmann at UMD, Wasniewski ended up as associate historian for the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. It wasn’t the academic job he had expected to find after graduation, but he had just gotten engaged and needed to find a way to pay the bills.
At the historical society, he got to know Capitol Hill. He exercised his journalistic knowledge by working on press outreach and continuing to do historical research for the organization.
Donald Kennon, the organization’s vice president for scholarship and education, said Wasniewski’s work ethic hasn’t changed much over the years. Since his appointment, Wasniewski has already reached out to Kennon to discuss what sort of community outreach programs the two places can work on together.
Wasniewski left the historical society in 2002 to join the newly created Office of History and Preservation as a publications specialist. While there, he worked on various projects, from researching women in Congress to developing the House’s oral history program. He has also worked closely with the Senate side, something that he plans to continue to do in his new role.
“We’re delighted that Matt was given the position,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “We have a great working relationship.”
No, this isn’t what Wasniewski planned on doing when he was in college. But he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I never imagined I would be a historian,” he said. “But I’m honored, thrilled and humbled to do this job.”