WASHINGTON, D.C. —The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is saddened to note the passing of Albert H. Small, an ardent supporter of the humanities and of civics education. By academic training a chemical engineer and by profession a businessman in residential and commercial real estate, Small received a 2009 National Humanities Medal for his wide-ranging philanthropy and keen eye as a collector of historic documents, especially those foundational to United States government.
NEH Acting Chair Adam Wolfson issued a comment: “Albert Small was a lifelong advocate for the humanities and a pillar of support to the National Endowment for the Humanities. His philanthropy served as a sterling example of how business success combined with a deep and abiding appreciation of the unique character of the nation’s Founders can help encourage civic-mindedness among educators and students.”
In addition to the many ways in which he supported collections and institutions of higher education, Small served on the board of directors for the National Trust for the Humanities, playing an important role. Former head of the board of the National Trust for the Humanities Bob Perry issued a statement, saying, “We can all express our deepest gratitude to Albert Small. For 14 years, Albert Small’s vision, dedication, intelligence, and leadership made a lasting impact on the humanities, on the National Trust for the Humanities, and on NEH. In fact, his was lifelong service to the humanities. May our memories of Albert be a blessing to all.”
Small—a second lieutenant in the Navy in World War II—caught the collecting bug by chance while browsing bookstores in New York City. “I guess I’m old fashioned in that way,” he once said. “I like to go to the bookshelf and get a book in my hand and look at it and be able to show it to somebody.”
He focused on maps, documents, and engravings relating to the founding of the United States. He acquired a copy of one of the few remaining copies of the Declaration of Independence, printed by John Dunlap, and autographed letters of all 56 signers. He donated these and his entire special collection relating to the era—including prints and newspapers—to the University of Virginia Library. George Washington University received another of one of Small’s vast special collections of maps and engravings from the early history of Washington, D.C., and environs.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Small enjoyed taking visitors through the corridors of Southern Engineering Corporation high in an office building in Bethesda, Md., where framed documents from the Founding era graced the walls. Small was not interested in acquisition for acquisition’s sake. Instead, he wanted to preserve, present, and share our American heritage down to the tiniest detail. Above all, he wished to provide context for American history, and to demonstrate to educators and students for generations to come the many risks and sacrifices of the Founders of the United States.