Brief biography of Harrison Bennett

History Smiths

How it all started…

I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where I saw first-hand that history was big business. Even as a kid, I was well aware of how much money was being spent by tourists starting every Patriot’s Day — April 19.

But I also knew that history was deeply personal. It was real. The ghosts and the memories were everywhere. I felt them.

I will share with you something I am just starting to tell people and that is that history saved my life. I was a very unhappy kid, living in a very unhappy household, and I craved role models of courage and determination who succeeded despite obstacles. I craved role models who were honorable, who I could look up to. And I found them at the “Old North Bridge” where, in my young mind, men did the most courageous thing possible by fighting for liberty and independence. To me, they were very real, and I embraced them. (Yes, I was vaguely aware of Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, et al, but I wasn’t ready for them.)

I tell you this story because this is why I am so passionate about history. These stories can literally save lives, and we never know who will be impacted and how.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up except write, but I always hoped that history would be part of my life.

At Simmons College in Boston, I was drawn to history for love (especially women’s history, where I developed my lifelong passion for uncovering and telling the stories of women!) and to communications for my profession. After a couple of “real jobs” in Boston’s cultural community, I knew I wanted to be on my own. I could already tell that I didn’t fit within the confines of “how things are done” in the traditional nonprofit sector. I also wanted to be in business and make money!

Going out on my own

I started Hurd Smith Communications to support myself as a graphic designer and writer. In turn, Hurd Smith would support “my habit,” as I told people, which meant my own historical research. Because I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was still surrounded by history and able to tap into a rich client base of cultural organizations. Then, with a master’s degree in communications management and years of practical experience as a service provider and nonprofit volunteer fundraiser and promoter, my company quickly expanded to include public relations, marketing, fundraising, event planning, and nonprofit administration. I loved being able to “marry” my knowledge of historical organizations with business. I loved the idea that the business side of the equation could promote and help sustain historical sites, projects, and organizations in ways they could not necessarily manage on their own. I believed then, and still do, that we all have a stake in preserving and celebrating our history.     In my work as a professional or volunteer, I now incorporated the “economic argument” into any case for support of a history project. The sands were shifting in the 1990s, and you ignored economics at your peril!

Women’s history and trails

At about this time, the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail (BWHT) asked me to serve as its part-time executive director and I agreed. Luckily, my schedule allowed for this flexibility.

I had already helped lead a statewide project to honor historical women at the Massachusetts State House, which was an extraordinary public art process, and I thought, why not? Once again, I could combine history and marketing and continue to focus on women’s history — which was now a reawakened passion from college days. Because BWHT was a virtual organization with limited funds, I HAD to think and act like an entrepreneur to promote women’s history in Boston. I also helped create a women’s history trail on the South Shore of Massachusetts, collaborated on the Cambridge Women’s History Project, and eventually created the Salem (MA) Women’s Heritage Trail and the Boston Women & The Law Trail.

Scholarly stature

Almost simultaneously, I joined the board of the Sargent House Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts, whose most famous resident, Judith Sargent Murray, the eighteenth-century essayist and women’s rights advocate, I had first encountered as an undergraduate and taken on as a personal research subject. She was also the subject of my Master’s thesis at Simmons — a “product launch” of Judith Sargent Murray.

As the president of a small, under-staffed historic house museum, you can imagine how hard I worked to promote, fundraise, manage, and engage every sector of the local and regional communities in what we were doing. Eventually, with the museum on sound footing, I left to pursue my own research on Murray. I have since published four books on her letters, a brief biography, founded a society in her name, and today I am considered the leading scholar on Murray’s life.

My historical work has been incredibly rewarding, especially in the field of women’s history, and it has led me to accolades, public recognition, the respect of the scholarly community, and an appointment to the board of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.

Several years ago I accepted another part-time executive director position for the Ipswich Historical Society, where I was able to practice some of these new, inclusive approaches. My work for Hurd Smith kept leading me to larger and more public projects, including grand-scale community events and historical anniversaries. Each one has produced a significant “return on investment” for the businesses, nonprofits, and communities involved. I have learned so much from these experiences, and this is not even a complete list!

Finding my niche and starting History Smiths

During my work on these historical community projects, I kept encountering business people who wanted to become involved in local history in ways that went beyond check writing. They wanted to be viewed as respected contributors to the historical community. But how? In one instance, the owner of an insurance agency asked me to lend my reputation to his company by conducting a research study for his 100th anniversary, creating marketing materials and news releases.  In another instance, I was able to connect local banks with specific history-related projects they could volunteer for and support because I knew the history and where the opportunities were. More examples of connecting businesses to local history for their benefit kept coming my way – again, because of my unusual blending of history and marketing – and  I paid attention! As a result, I launched History Smiths in March 2010 with a special focus on businesses, particularly professional service providers, who want to connect with customers, secure customer loyalty, and boost their business’s reputation in the communities they serve. And what a pleasure it has been to work with these professionals, because you know what? At the end of the day, it means that many, many more people are helping to preserve our precious historical resources for future generations. The old ways no longer work. Instead, working together, we business people who honor history and know we can use it to benefit our bottom lines, are forging new paths.

That’s exciting, rewarding stuff. I have also become a sought-after speaker, and I have developed a series of both business and history talks.

NOTHING is more rewarding than inspiring people to think differently about history — as a source of information AND inspiration that can profoundly impact people personally. And so the passion has only grown, and it has also evolved into making more connections between stories from women’s history and what we can do with them today — to inspire young people, to inspire the rest of us, to get businesses involved…there is no limit to this stuff! The people I work with or speak to want to make a difference in the world, and getting involved with history can do that and be deeply fulfilling. So, yes, I’m on a mission and I hope you will join me! Thanks for stopping by!

Harrison Bennett