By BECKY GILLETTE
Jon Parrish Peede, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is a native of Mississippi who moved to Washington D.C. 15 years ago when President George W. Bush appointed him to a position at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
“Virginia has been my state of residence since and is where my wife Nancy and I raised our daughter,” Peede said “But when the Trump White House asked me to write down the state to be affiliated with on my official nomination before the U.S. Senate, I did not write the Commonwealth of Virginia. Rather, I wrote: “Jon Parrish Peede of Mississippi.”
Founded in 1965, NEH is an independent grant-making institution of the U.S. government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.
Peede was born and raised in Brandon. Since his father was a surgeon and his mother was director of medical records, he loved medicine during his youth and went to Vanderbilt University to prepare for a medical career. During high school, he interned at Rankin General Hospital in the surgery ward. During college, he worked for a summer at the VA Hospital in Jackson and worked part-time at the nephrology lab at Vanderbilt during the school year.
But he eventually decided that his calling was to a writer and editor, not a doctor.
“I believe that the works of the great writers of Mississippi—Welty, Faulkner, Richard Wright, Margaret Alexander Walker, Shelby Foote, Will D. Campbell, Willie Morris—influenced me to pursue a literary career,” Peede said. “Being away from home at college, I came to understand Faulkner and the Deep South at a personal level.”
“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well,” Welty wrote. “For all serious daring starts within.” Peede claims those words as his own view.
“I may have studied the sciences, but I lived the arts in Mississippi, and what we live is almost always a stronger factor in shaping our lives,” he said.
After graduating from Vanderbilt with a B.S. in English, he accepted a fellowship for the Southern Studies master’s program at the University of Mississippi. He studied with Bill Ferris, Tom Rankin, Charles Reagan Wilson, Bob Brinkmeyer, and many other gifted professors. Ferris, who served as NEH chairman himself, remains an important mentor.
Although President Donald J. Trump originally proposed eliminating the NEH, in April Trump signed into a law a budget of $153 million for the NEH, which is the largest NEH budget level in six years.
“The agency has bipartisan support in the U.S. House and Senate,” Peede said. “Approximately 40 percent of NEH funding goes directly to our state partners, including the Mississippi Humanities Council led by Stuart Rockoff. I can’t say enough great things about the state’s humanities team, and its commitment to reaching every county.
“Of particular note, the new NEH infrastructure and capacity-building grants have been well received across the aisle on Capitol Hill and across the country. These grants leverage federal dollars to spur increased private investment in our nation’s libraries, museums, and cultural centers to ensure the long-term health and growth of these institutions. Equally important, NEH grants—such as our support of the new twin history museums in Jackson and the new Mississippi Writers Trail—drive economic development and cultural tourism.”
Each year more than 2,400 teachers participate in NEH-sponsored workshops and institutes on topics ranging from ancient Roman society to the literature and culture of Appalachia, translating into a more enriching educational experience for some 350,000 students across America. Peede said NEH grants have enabled the development of the country’s art conservation education programs, producing graduates who have applied their expertise to the conservation of precious heritage items such as the Star-Spangled Banner and the Declaration of Independence.
NEH initiatives such as a partnership with the First Nations Development Institute are helping revitalize endangered Native American languages. And NEH emergency grants to museums, libraries, and archives in areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are helping small cultural institutions recover quickly from natural disaster. Peede said through these projects and thousands of others, the NEH has inspired and preserved what is best in American culture.
Peede was sworn in as the 11th chairman of the NEH at a May 3 ceremony at the White House.
“It is a distinct honor to be nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as chairman of the NEH,” Peede said. “I particularly value this vote of bipartisan support and will work with my NEH colleagues to ensure that all Americans have access to our country’s cultural resources.”
Peede joined NEH in April 2017. Peede’s previous positions include publisher of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia, literature grants director at the NEA, counselor to NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, director of the NEA Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience program, director of the NEA Big Read program, director of communications at Millsaps College, and editor at Mercer University Press.
He is the coeditor of Inside the Church of Flannery O’Connor: Sacrament, Sacramental, and the Sacred in Her Fiction (Mercer, 2007) and editor of a bilingual anthology of contemporary American fiction (Lo que cuenta el vecino: cuentos contemporáneos de los Estados Unidos [UNUM: Mexico City, 2008].) He has published widely in newspapers, magazines, academic journals, books, and encyclopedias. As a speechwriter, he has written for a U.S. president, first lady, and librarian of Congress.
More information about the NEH and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.
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