On September 9, James Conway Rees IV passed away at his home in Virginia. Anyone who has visited Mount Vernon in the past decade has seen the handiwork of Rees, who helmed the George Washington estate from 1994 to 2012.
“Jim was a true gentleman. Modest, courteous, and kind, he treated everyone with respect,” Bruce Cole, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, told me by e-mail. Rees’s “steadfast devotion to Washington underpinned his brilliant tenure at Mount Vernon,” he says.
During his time as president of Mount Vernon, Rees oversaw many projects focused on preservation, education, and research, including the addition in 2006 of an orientation center and a lovely museum, the renovation and reconstruction in the 2000s of Washington’s gristmill and long-lost distillery, and the opening in the 1990s of a permanent exhibit about agriculture that includes a re-creation of our founding farmer’s sixteen-sided threshing barn. Rees also did the heavy lifting in the fundraising for Mount Vernon’s new library and research center, which opened late last year.
Not since the 1930s — when a commission marked the bicentennial of Washington’s birth with celebrations and new scholarship across the country — has the nation seen such a flurry of activity related to Washington’s life and career. Noemie Emery, author of the finest one-volume biography of Washington, told me that “James Rees seems to have invented new ways to introduce great men to their country, for which we are all in his debt.” Cole agrees: “There is no one who has done more to keep the legacy of our first president alive.”
Whenever Rees spoke about Washington, his boyish enthusiasm shone through, as you can see for yourself in the videos of his several C-SPAN appearances. His 2007 book about Washington as a leader and businessman is worth a look, too. But there is no better way to appreciate Rees’s extraordinary accomplishment than to spend a day visiting Mount Vernon itself.
Jim Rees was just 62 when he died, much too young. Yet there is perhaps something poetic in the date of his passing, September 9, 2014, for it was on September 9, 1781, that General George Washington returned to Mount Vernon for the first time in more than six years. He had been away to the north, fighting for independence, and during the war’s darkest hours had occupied his troubled and homesick mind with thoughts of his Virginia estate. Now, with his French allies joining the fight in earnest, the end of the war — the day when Washington could lay down arms and return to “my own Vine and Fig tree” — seemed nearer at hand than ever before, and he enjoyed three days at Mount Vernon before heading off to Yorktown and destiny. How strangely fitting that on the anniversary of the day Washington’s war-weary eyes glimpsed his beloved home, Jim Rees, so long the faithful steward of that home, should find his own eternal rest.
— Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.