Fittingly enough, history was made the night I first encountered the historian Howard Gillette Jr.
It was 1997; Milton Milan had just been elected Camden's first Hispanic mayor. City Hall was jammed with media, and Gillette — mild of manner but acutely observant — stood there, smiling, taking it all in.
"Who is this guy?" I asked someone.
I soon found out, as did hundreds of people Gillette interviewed across South Jersey and elsewhere for his landmark book Camden After the Fall and his 2010 volume Civitas by Design.
A professor of history and the founding director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers-Camden, Gillette is preparing to retire from teaching. His research, writing, and advocacy will continue.
"I think Camden has changed me," the 68-year-old Haddonfield resident says. "Do I love it? Sure . . . but it's heartbreaking."
The Yale-educated Gillette will deliver the annual Fredric Miller Lecture (named for the respected archivist and scholar) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Campus Center. It's free and open to the public.
"I'll be trying to tie together different threads of my 40 years of work," Gillette says.
His career encompasses far more than Camden; he previously taught at George Washington University, where he also ran the humanities center and wrote Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C.
More recently, MARCH and Gillette participated in a number of "public history" projects in the Philadelphia region, including the President's House. That impressionistic re-creation of George Washington's official residence on Independence Mall highlights the contributions of the African slaves who lived there.
The house, now attracting visitors at Sixth and Market Streets, "is far from perfect," Gillette says. But it does suggest the sort of fuller, more finely detailed portraits he believes history must offer if it is to be useful — if it is to help citizens communicate across racial and other barriers.
The house also reflects the approach Gillette took with Camden After the Fall, which showcases everyday people, who are often overlooked. His research included large public gatherings and a website showcasing accounts of the city's postwar history by people who lived it.
As a historian, "you have to put yourself in someone else's shoes, particularly when crossing a racial divide, so you can even begin to understand — not truly understand, but begin to understand," Gillette says.
"What happened to me in Camden, which didn't happen to me in Washington, was that I got pulled into the lives of a number of people, in ways I could not have imagined."
As a white man, an academic, and a suburbanite, "I couldn't represent the people of Camden," Gillette notes. "But at least I could begin to put them in the story, so they wouldn't be invisible, so they wouldn't be a statistic, or a caricature.
"I tried to make it possible to see them as people fighting in difficult times to get control over their lives and make their communities better."
Gillette, whose wife, Margaret Marsh, is dean of the arts and sciences faculty at Rutgers-Camden, says his experience with individuals in the city illuminated the way collective politics and policies can lead to unexpected consequences.
He cites the widespread disappointment with the long-anticipated state takeover of City Hall, which came to an early end in 2010 after hardly transformative results.
"The state intervention wasn't respectful to the people living in the city," Gillette says. "I don't blame them for fighting it."
A father of two grown sons from a previous marriage, Gillette says his ongoing projects include an online regional encyclopedia to help Philadelphia-area residents understand how we got to be where and who we are.
"It's been said the past is a foreign country," Gillette says. "What the historian tries to do is make it more knowable, more tangible. A kind of bridge."