When Armand DeKeyser returned to his home state four years ago to take the reins of Alabama Humanities Foundation, he brought with him a certain amount of national name recognition. After all, he served as chief of staff for US Senator Jeff Sessions and US Senator Bob Corker.
It should come as no surprise he knew his way around the intricacies of Capitol Hill, and those who work there knew him. He had served on all levels of government – local, state and federal. He had been in private business, the military and served as a lobbyist.
While work in the humanities really was not a part of his resume, DeKeyser, who now serves as Alabama Humanities Foundation executive director, cited his other work perspectives as deciding factors for the board of directors that hired him. He also cites those diverse vantage points of experience as pivotal in bringing some national focus back to Alabama – this time from the humanities.
DeKeyser was featured in the summer issue of Humanities Magazine, the publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he has been nominated to join the board of directors for the National Federation of State Humanities Councils.
Calling both recognitions a “distinct honor,” DeKeyser explained his evolution from political insider to humanities executive as a natural course.
Humanities Magazine is published four times a year, and there are 56 council members across the country. To be one of those four in four years’ time to be featured is “pretty remarkable.”
It is because he does not fit the mold, he reasoned, that puts him in the company of more seasoned humanities colleagues. “I have a different take on everything. I am not necessarily better or smarter than what people normally think of as humanities representatives, like educators and scholars. I’m definitely not a scholar. In fact, the humanities people I work with, who are so impressive with such strong backgrounds in their respective fields, can be daunting to the son of a fish monger from Mobile, Alabama.”
But he takes it all in stride, learning more every day and sharing his own knowledge. He sees himself as a bridge between humanities and government. So much of the funding for the humanities comes from the federal government. “Sometimes it is difficult to penetrate that world. I have a unique perspective, having worked at the local, state and federal levels of government,” and that perspective enables him to help government understand the critical role humanities plays in everyday lives.
“We have to explain ourselves much more simply than we would to other humanities scholars,” DeKeyser said. “Everyday life is so full of fascinating topics and opportunities for average Alabamians to experience through the humanities, yet we take it for granted sometimes. We have to communicate that message and its importance,” he said.
“It is not elitist to support the humanities. Instead, it is much more a privilege and an exciting time to share the knowledge that humanities provides and the inspiration that knowledge brings to the world around us.”
Museum on Main Street, Alabama’s partnership with the Smithsonian Institution to bring a traveling exhibit to rural cities and towns across the state each year, comes to mind as an example. For so many Alabamians, it is their first and perhaps only opportunity to see a Smithsonian exhibit, DeKeyser said.
The now nationally known teacher institute, Stony the Road We Trod: Alabama’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement, is another example. This summer, thanks to a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, AHF hosted 72 teachers from across the nation who retraced the historic footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. It brought this volatile period of the nation’s history from the pages of a book to a real life experience for these teachers, and what they learned will be “a tipping point for understanding” for countless students – from Maine to California.
It is that ability to explain the relevance of the humanities in everyday terms on multiple levels that gives DeKeyser the opportunity to play a role on the national humanities stage, a responsibility he savors.
He was nominated to serve a four-year term on the 16-member board of directors for the national federation. Again, he pointed back to his “knowledge of Washington and how committees work when it comes to federal funding” that helped him bring Alabama’s organization into the national conversation.
“I am pleased to be nominated,” DeKeyser said. “It is one of the highest honors our national members can give to a state director. To be nominated by my peers shows their confidence in me to serve with them, and I find that very gratifying.”
He is looking forward to the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the humanities at a higher level. “I know I will value having the ability to learn more about the scope of what humanities councils do across the country.”
And, of course, he’ll bring that back home to Alabama, too.