It is the end of an era in Alexandria. Pamela Cressey, retired this past weekend as the City’s Archaeologist, a position she held for the past 32 years. Cressey will continue to live in the area and work on certain projects on her own time (See Alexandria Archaeology’s Facebook).
In her farewell letter to her friends and colleagues, Cressey thanked the city, its residents and the thousands of volunteers and visitors. Now it’s our turn to thank her.
During her 35 years of service, Cressey soared way above and beyond the call of duty. One way of appreciating her legacy is to just look around Old Town.
We’ll start with the landmark Torpedo Factory Arts Center. From her third floor office, she led a staff whose digs and preservation projects are too numerous to list here. The Archaeology Center there is more than just a reservoir for reports. It is a unique museum with volunteers at work and a treasure trove of artifacts found in the city.
Walk along the waterfront or in any heritage park in the historic district of Old Town and Parker-Gray, or read a way finding sign there, and chances are Cressey was part of the development team. These include the soon-to-open Contrabands and Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial Park, the recently opened Jones Point Park, the Alexandria African-American Heritage Park, the Alexandria Waterfront Walk, and the exquisite new set of granite markers at Potomac Yard.
To say the least, Cressey, who holds a PhD (RPA), wore many hats. When she wasn’t leading an excavation dig or researching, she advised and consulted on projects and plans, developed protection codes, and liaisoned with other preservation agencies. In the past so many years, if you attended any of the lecture events at places like the Morrison House, you more than likely saw her there – supervising the set up, making the speaker feel at home, greeting old friends, and making new ones. When the local media needed a succinct quote on some aspect of Alexandria’s history, they went straight to Cressey.
“Pam,” as her friends know her, somehow found time to author two books. One of them, “Ride and Bike the Alexandria Heritage Trail,” is a must read for local history buffs. Her other book, “Alexandria, Virginia, Digging for the Past,” serves as a primer for select digs in Alexandria, and contains a rare interview with writer Margaret Anderson. Asked about her favorite exhibit at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Cressey said it is a place where visitors can see not only the exhibits, but also “the volunteers and archaeologists washing artifacts and cataloging them” and “people studying historic records and transcribing oral history.
As busy as she was in her position, Cressey had time for everyone. In the spring of 2010, after I had started my commemorative markers project, I fell into a doubt-ridden slump. It was a conversation over a cup of coffee with Pam that renewed my vigor. This past summer, when the city unveiled 17 new way finding signs at Jones Point Park, my heart leapt with joy. After I caught my breath, I thought of Pam, knowing the major role she played in the research. These markers, by the way, are magnificent, and set a new standard in the realm of preserving the city’s history.
During her tenure, Alexandria Archaeology became a nationwide touchstone (no pun intended). Their achievements were recognized earlier this year when the Society for Historical Archaeology presented to them the “Award for Excellence in Public Historical Archaeology.” Not surprisingly, Alexandria was the first recipient of this prestigious award.
Perhaps the best praise for Cressey’s accomplishments is seen in a recent book, titled “A Richer Heritage, Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century.” In Chapter Eight, John R. Sprinkle Jr. covers “The Changing Role of Archaeology in Historic Programs.” Speaking of public archaeology programs in the U.S, he writes, “Virginia’s Alexandria Archaeology is probably the best known and most successful of these programs.”
So as this tireless public servant makes her transition to post-retirement, it is a bittersweet moment for those of us who know her and what she has achieved. We’re pleased she will have more time to smell the roses and read the newspaper in the morning, but also sad she’s stepping down from the helm she held for so long.
Pam shies away from public praise, so I gave some thought to not publishing this on the web. But we’re not letting her go without paying tribute and expressing our feelings.
Pam, I think the best salute we can give you is to say you have indeed helped give Alexandria “a richer heritage.” We thank you from the bottom of our hearts, and hope to see you around town!