A History Channel exec does 200 years of Lincoln justice
By Christina Poole
What do Abraham Lincoln and Libby H. O’Connell, chief historian for The History Channel and senior vice president of Corporate Outreach for A&E Television Networks, have in common? The two are both having a big year. Americans nationwide are paying tribute to one of their most beloved presidents this year in honor of his 200th birthday in the yearlong Lincoln Bicentennial celebration headquartered in the Metro-D.C. area. And O’Connell has more than a few tricks up her sleeve to pay homage to Honest Abe and American history in this banner year.
After receiving her Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia, Libby O’Connell taught at a Long Island college until a chance encounter with an A&E executive landed her a spot on the four-person team charged with starting The History Channel. “I took a semester off from teaching, thinking I would only be working in TV for six months,” O’Connell says more than a decade later. She brought an expertise in legal and constitutional history to her first position with the station, and typically deals with those subject areas when fulfilling the role of talking head on television. Currently she fills an executive role as the head of corporate outreach for A&E, but she continues to produce videos for museums nationwide, working with nonprofits to equip them with multimedia components for different historical exhibitions. She splits time between her office in New York and her home in Arlington, which she shares with her space-adventurer husband Matt O’Connell.
O’Connell claims she recognizes the importance of working through a medium such as television and knows her power is precious. “TV has a responsibility to enrich people’s lives. I feel like I’m a really lucky educator. I believe in the importance of the past, and to have the reach I can through The History Channel is unparalleled.”
Unlike historians toiling away in the stacks, O’Connell boasts an office with a view: that of three gold Emmys she won for her work with A&E. Two of the statues bestowed upon her for the programs “Save Our History” and the “Biography Project for Schools” are Governor’s Awards, which honor an individual, company or organization that has made a substantial impact and demonstrated extraordinary use of television. The third was awarded for her contributions to the A&E program “A Question of Life or Meth.”
The experience was altogether unique, according O’Connell: “I can’t remember walking from my seat to the podium, but I do remember an amazing adrenaline rush. Getting the chance to say thank you to the people who helped me in my life and career was a wonderful thing.”
O’Connell sits on the advisory board of the newly reopened National Museum of American History with the likes of author David McCullough (“John Adams,” “1776”) and television journalist Judy Woodruff. She has helped revamp the museum’s flagship exhibitions, such as The Star-Spangled Banner and The American Presidency, by producing new films for the hallmarks of the remodeled and architecturally enhanced Washington landmark. “The light pouring through, the sense of space and openness—the renovations are more than impressive, they are stunning,” O’Connell says. “I really think they herald a fresh and exciting approach to public history.”
O’Connell’s reverence for Lincoln likely explains her very active schedule with regards to the bicentennial celebration. “Lincoln has a lot of power in our imaginations as a character. His words really transcend [the] 19th century and speak to us in the 20th century.” Born to two Virginian parents, and ultimately assassinated in Washington, D.C., Lincoln and his story are inextricably linked to the Northern Virginia area, especially given the prominence of Virginia in the Civil War.
The Lincoln bicentennial comes to a head in February 2009 to celebrate the 200th birthday of our 16th president, with initiatives taking place nationwide and locally. The History Channel has plenty planned for the celebration, as O’Connell attests: “History Channel’s commitment to Lincoln’s 200th anniversary involves every department, from sales to website to programming.” The Channel kicks off the festivities in early February with a show entitled “Stealing Lincoln,” which pertains to the theft of the president’s body shortly after his death in 1865. Lincoln’s body traveled the typical posthumous parade for a president, until someone attempted to steal his remains and hold them for ransom. In the process of stealing Lincoln, the theft plot was revealed, and the show offers a detailed look at the heist.
The History Channel’s Give a Lincoln for Lincoln program encourages students to donate pennies (and their parents, five dollars) to preserve historic sites associated with the life and legacy of Lincoln. “Give a Lincoln for Lincoln provides a platform for historic preservation, for public exhibits and for school outreach,” O’Connell explains. “The response so far has been very positive.” Coincidentally, the U.S. Mint is also releasing four commemorative pennies with new tail-side designs featuring scenes from Lincoln’s life.
The celebration features several online K-12 components, too. The website History.com/Lincoln presents the giving program, as well as lesson plans for teachers, grant opportunities for schools and contests for kids to express their thoughts on Lincoln’s legacy. Videos featuring top Lincoln scholars such as Doris Goodwin and James Horton will be available to teachers for streaming in the classroom, and The History Channel is partnering with the U.S. Department of Education and National History Day, Inc., to develop further Lincoln-related tools for teachers and premiere relevant documentaries for children.
Lincoln’s cabin legacy will also be honored, in a way. The History Channel and conservation organization American Forests have identified a series of trees relevant to Lincoln’s life as part of the bicentennial celebration; teachers and departments that submit outstanding lesson plans will receive enough seeds to plant a grove at their schools. “There’s just something special about tree planting,” O’Connell says, “because it spans generations.”
Capping off the celebration is the reopening of Ford’s Theatre in winter 2009. The product of a three-year, $50 million capital campaign, the new Ford’s Theatre will be a campus along 10th Street showcasing the actual theater, the house where Lincoln died and a new, state-of-the-art learning center. Plans for the learning center include historical artifacts, interactive exhibits, lectures and performances, all in the name of preserving and publicizing the life and legacy of Lincoln. O’Connell and the Channel are preparing a video for the exhibition for, as O’Connell puts it, his words and actions are a “part of American scripture … He’s still not just a figurehead, and has tremendous meaning and depth for the future of our country.”