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Remembering Dan Jordan, the man who transformed Monticello into what it is today

When historian Dan Jordan took over leadership of Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello, he could have settled comfortably into venerating the third president’s celebrated past. Instead, he saw and seized opportunities to redirect the focus to the future.

Jordan died March 21 at 85 years old from a heart attack. The former president and CEO of the nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Jefferson’s Monticello estate, left a legacy of scholarship, preservation and thirst for truth that friends and colleagues say was built not merely on facts and figures, but on people. His time at the helm from 1985 to 2008 was marked by significant transitions and changes that succeeded, some longtime friends say, because he had built and nourished a lasting infrastructure of relationships.

Born in 1938 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Jordan (pronounced JUR-dun) was the son of a dentist and a homemaker who would go on to meet princes and presidents.

After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1962, Jordan served as an Army infantryman in South Korea and Western Europe. He taught history classes while abroad through the University of Maryland’s overseas division. When he returned to the States, he furthered his education at the University of Virginia, where he studied under renowned Jefferson scholar Merrill D. Peterson, and received his PhD in 1970. For more than a decade, Jordan was a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and during that time he wrote several books, including “Political Leadership in Jefferson’s Virginia.” Jordan was invited to join the staff at Monticello in 1985 as director of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Friends, colleagues and former employees who spoke to The Daily Progress ahead of Jordan’s memorial service, held Thursday at UVa’s Alumni Hall, remembered him as someone who would have been far more at ease shifting the spotlight to his teammates’ strengths and accomplishments than accepting praise for his own achievements. That’s what several fondly recalled him trying to do at his own retirement dinner.

Whether he was welcoming a newly minted U.S. citizen after one of Monticello’s Fourth of July naturalization ceremonies, shaking hands with a president or greeting a coworker, Jordan spoke to each person as if he or she were the only person in the room.

“He had an astonishing ability to remember people and remember their backstories,” Ann Taylor, a former executive vice president at Monticello and a longtime friend, told The Daily Progress. “He remembered your spouse’s name, your middle name and your favorite sports. When you met Dan, you were forever a friend.”

“To work for Dan was to know he wanted the absolute best for Monticello, and he wanted the absolute best for you,” said Beth Cheuk, a community relations supervisor for Charlottesville City Schools who worked for Jordan at Monticello for 13 years. “He was not only a boss; he was a friend. He was your cheerleader. Every accomplishment he had at Monticello was based on relationships.”

Taylor, who worked with Jordan for 13 years starting in 1987 and then again from 2007 to 2008, called him “a transformative leader.” Taylor said Jordan’s team-building prowess was based on deep respect for the talents and contributions of others, and he looked forward to seeing where colleagues’ new research or innovative thinking would take them.

“I had a ringside seat to his charisma and courage. He certainly elevated Monticello to an international stage,” Taylor said. “On a personal note, for those of us fortunate enough to be considered his friends, he will be remembered as a natural leader. He was decisive when the stakes were high, and he always operated with integrity and commitment.”

Both Monticello and Jefferson’s original Academical Village at UVa were included on the UNESCO World Heritage List during Jordan’s tenure, and Taylor said Jordan understood the lasting impact of local preservation as well. A proposed development project in 1988 that would have brought state agencies, a helipad and possibly fast food restaurants to the intersection of state routes 20 and 53, not far from the entrance to Monticello, sent Jordan’s “courage and his powers of persuasion” into overdrive to find the right solution to protect the area.

“This would have ruined the entrance corridor, and the experience, for thousands of visitors,” Taylor said. The land was sold to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation instead “and is protected forever,” Taylor said. The creation of the Saunders-Monticello Trail also gave visitors a chance to linger in a landscape Jefferson loved and get a better sense of its worth, she said.

“Hundreds of acres of Thomas Jefferson’s original land trust were preserved forever,” Taylor said. “Dan turned what could have been a tragedy into a treasure.”

Sara Bon-Harper is executive director of Highland, the home of fifth President James Monroe, who was a friend and neighbor of Jefferson’s. While she served as archaeologist at Monticello, Bon-Harper was also Jordan’s friend and neighbor. She witnessed firsthand Jordan’s ability to recognize and nurture people’s talents. He realized that a larger world beyond Monticello’s gates would need them.

“One of the things Dan is known for is his development of people,” Bon-Harper said, noting her friend’s knack for “developing talent and cheering people on as they went on to do new things.”

“He didn’t see a role; he saw a person,” Bon-Harper said. “He asked about our families and our children. I think he had a thirst for making connections with people.”

In her role at Highland, Bon-Harper remembers lessons learned from Jordan’s examples of leadership. Jordan impressed upon her that “the quality of an historic site is based on research” and that being genuine matters.

“The authenticity of being oneself as a leader? That is a real Dan lesson,” Bon-Harper said. When she was preparing to interview for the Highland post, Jordan told her “to go on in and be yourself. That is something that has served me well: to be honest and open about the extent of our own capacity and bring in others.” She said she strives to emulate “that energy and passion for connecting with people.”

Taylor said Jordan proudly played a long game. A couple of years before Jefferson’s 250th birthday in 1993, Jordan challenged his staff to go beyond garden-variety expectations for the milestone, saying, “I want 100 great ideas.” She said historian Cinder Stanton’s response was to develop the Getting Word project to make sure that the oral histories handed down through the families of the enslaved population at Monticello were preserved for posterity.

Focusing on rigorous scholarship made it possible to enter a new chapter of Monticello’s history in the 1990s: to recognize what life really was like to the people who worked and lived in slavery at Monticello. Historians dove into documenting the lives, careers and families of those who had not chosen to be there and could not walk away.

Tours of Monticello that centered around slavery and life on Mulberry Row, where slaves lived and worked, started in 1993. Following the facts and facing the truth mattered, more than ever, when continuing research necessitated taking a new look at an old icon.

With Jordan at Monticello’s helm, history and science laid the groundwork for public acknowledgement in 1998 of the consensus that Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who was the half-sister of his late wife, Martha.

Jordan “established ambitious research programs and really made that commitment,” Bon-Harper said, adding that he encouraged his team to “do better history and share better history with the public.”

Jane Kamensky, who’s in Jordan’s former role at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation today, said he “showed us how to live in grace.”

Kamensky said Jordan’s legacy continues in “following research to where it leads,” she said. “He had extraordinary courage in finding the facts.”

At the heart of Jordan’s success, perhaps, lies a true historian’s approach.

“I think Dan came to the job with questions instead of answers,” Kamensky said.

Jordan’s endless patience with and kindness to young reporters also will be remembered.

Jordan is survived by Lou, his wife of more than 62 years; his brother, Joseph Lodwick Jordan; and his children, Dan, Grace and Katherine, and their families.

In lieu of flowers, Jordan’s family asks that people remember him with donations to the history departments at Ole Miss or UVa, or to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville.


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