Al Klyberg’s sudden death in January, 2017 brought to an end a friendship and historical collaboration I had shared with him for over forty-six years–ever since he introduced himself to me upon his Rhode Island arrival in 1968 at the suggestion of Bill Joyce, his colleague in the graduate school of the University of Michigan. Bill had earned his masters degree at Providence College under my direction.
The relationship between Al and me was intensely personal as well as professional. I placed this newcomer on the advisory council of Congressman Robert Tiernan (which I chaired) and later on the Rhode Island Bicentennial Commission (which I also headed) as well as the Bicentennial Council of the Thirteen Original States. I also introduced Al to legislative leaders such as Representative Matt Smith and Senators Bob McKenna and David Carlin. Their admiration for Al brought a huge boost in the state appropriation to his Rhode Island Historical Society, where he served with distinction as its executive director.
By the late 1970s, Al needed no introductions. He became the champion of and the poster boy for Rhode Island History. Our association continued through the bicentennial of Rhode Island statehood, the U.S. Constitution Council, the Rhode Island Historical Society’s 150th anniversary observance of the Dorr Rebellion (a celebration over which he made me chairman), the Rhode Island Publications Society, the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, Al’s Heritage Harbor Museum project, and finally, the creation of the Heritage Harbor Foundation from the ruins of the museum.
In 2017, shortly after Al’s death, I prepared in his honor a booklet titled Lessons from the Museum: A Guide for the Study of Rhode Island History based upon the detailed outline he had prepared, in vain, for his Heritage Harbor Museum.
The following is a brief eulogy I published in the Providence Journal and in a special tribute issue of Rhode Island History magazine. It was very difficult to do him justice.
Albert T. Klyberg of Lincoln passed away suddenly and quietly in the early morning hours of January 10, 2017, less than twelve hours after he had met with me and Heritage Harbor Foundation treasurer Tony Marandola to arrange for the presentation of grant money from the Foundation to nine local non-profit organizations dedicated to the promotion of Rhode Island history and culture.
How ironic that he lived just long enough to see the first fruits of his thirty-five-year crusade to bring the story of Rhode Island’s heritage to the people of his adopted state via a foundation that he was a leader in creating.
Al, a native of New Jersey, came to Rhode Island in 1968 after completing his doctoral courses at the University of Michigan. After serving as the organization’s librarian, he would assume the directorship of the staid Rhode Island Historical Society in 1970–a position he held with distinction for three decades. Upon arrival, Al immediately recognized a deficit in the Ocean State’s history, namely the neglect of post-Civil War Rhode Island history. This oversight left out the stories of eighty percent of today’s state population.
To rectify those gaps in the historical record, Klyberg led the RIHS’s effort to microfilm
all the state’s newspapers down to present time, and he began a television news film archive.
The Rhode Island Bicentennial Commission (on which Al was a prominent member) created eighteen ethnic heritage subcommittees that opened opportunities for Klyberg’s Rhode Island Historical Society to expand its mission and its activities. To accomplish this task, Al lobbied for the increase of the state appropriation to the RIHS.
Al’s simultaneous leadership in the RIHS’s production of the thirteen-volume Papers of General Nathanael Greene and the two-volume edition of The Correspondence of Roger Williams proved that he did not neglect the earlier period of Rhode Island history.
While offering courses in museum studies and in the history of Rhode Island at the
University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, Providence College, and Bryant University,
Al went through several phases in his attempt to define clearly the field of Rhode Island history.
He believed that “inclusiveness” should be the hallmark of such a project.
He suggested that Rhode Island history can be best understood within “Six Big Ideas,” which he identified and described with imagination and great insight. Under the rubric of these six themes, Klyberg devised 240 topics for analysis and further study. These are noted in the forementioned Lessons booklet.
For his efforts Al won many honors. In 1981, he received a presidential appointment to
the National Museum Services Board, and in 1986, he earned a doctorate of Humane Letters from Rhode Island College. He was an incorporator of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the managing developer of the highly-successful Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, the author of several influential booklets and articles about Rhode Island, and a board member of numerous historical organizations. In 2014, following my nomination, Al was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
Although Al’s dream of a state historical museum in the former South Street Station of the Narragansett Electric Company was dashed by the economic impact of the Great Recession and the cessation of the state historic tax credit program, the money generated by that project has resulted in the creation of a Heritage Harbor Foundation. The interest on this fund generates annual grants for historical and heritage projects throughout Rhode Island that will further his “Six Big Ideas.” This foundation is Al’s greatest legacy to his adopted state.
Throughout the course of Al’s historical odyssey, the steadfast support and affection of his wife, Beverly, and children, Kimberly and Kevin (a National Park Ranger), provided an essential home-life balance for a career dedicated to promoting civic engagement and knowledge based on local history.
For nearly a half-century Al Klyberg illuminated Rhode Island’s past for our citizens to view it–many for the first time. No one ever equaled his dedication and persistence in performing that labor of love. Through the lens of the Heritage Harbor Foundation Al’s light will continue to shine.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley