The Gift of Time

Posted on Wed., Aug. 27, 2014 by Susan Turner-Lowe
Matt Stevens
Matt Stevens, Managing Editor at The Huntington for the past ten years.

Every now and then a coworker comes along who is absolutely made for the job. They live it, breathe it, are the essence of the work—so much so that you think the job is them. In fact, you don’t know which came first; it’s a sort of workplace chicken and egg phenomenon.

Here’s how it all began with Matt Stevens: For a long period of time, The Huntington did its thing quietly. People knew it as a lovely place for tea, the spot where Pinkie and Blue Boy lived, the “museum” your grandmother brought you to.

But by the early 2000s, more emphasis was being placed on communications and outreach, on telling our story. And very rightly so; it turns out that with a library collection of more than 9 million objects, a spectacular art collection, and 120 acres of botanical gardens, there were a lot—a LOT—of stories to tell.

Enter Matt Stevens. Bookish and earnest with a wry sense of humor, Matt came to The Huntington to start a magazine. “You want to hire me,” he stated, in the most matter-of-fact manner I think I’ve ever encountered in an interview. And hire him I did!

Cover of Huntington Frontiers from 2005
The inaugural issue of Huntington Frontiers, 2005.

Brought in as the founding editor of Huntington Frontiers, Matt sought good stories like a bloodhound pursues forensic evidence: focused, perspicacious, selective. He befriended scholars, curators, and security guards alike in his search for the good stuff. He sidled up to anyone with a penchant for writing: staff, volunteers, renowned scholars who’d done research here. From Yale’s Edmund Morgan to Pulitzer Prize winners Alan Taylor and Daniel Walker Howe, Matt corresponded with all of them, winning their trust, editing their work, making it sing.

Almost to a person, people reacted with delight to the final product—their bylined stories, edited by Matt, running in the magazine. Most writers will tell you (especially writers with egos) that if they don’t absolutely abhor being edited, they certainly chafe at the process. But not with Matt. “A pleasure!” people would say to me, time and time again. “He’s amazing!”

In fact, he became the go-to person for much of the institution’s copy. Until, that is, buried under a mountain of unedited work, he hollered, “Uncle!” (Since then, we’ve brought on a bit of freelance editing help and tried to share the burden a bit.) Meanwhile, he took on the Annual Report, making it a triumph of a publication. He mastered our podcasting effort, editing, polishing, and uploading lectures and related materials to our iTunes U site, which he helped develop. He upgraded our style guide and created a higher quality standard for everything from event invitations to exhibition label copy. And he helped create Verso, the Huntington blog. And that’s just scratching the surface.

And now he’s leaving. Matt heads to USC to work his magic there as managing editor in the school of education; today is his last day at The Huntington. But what a gift the last 10 years have been. In fact, they passed in such a flurry of activity, I was stunned when he announced he would be leaving exactly a decade after he began.

In doing so, Matt made a single, final request of his colleagues: “Please, please, I ask of you,” he began, at a farewell luncheon the other day. “Please. It’s one space after a period. Not two.” And so I have tried. I even took out a pica ruler and measured this. But, geez, can I just say: that’s one bear of a habit to break!

And with apologies to Dickens (whose material, by the way, The Huntington holds a lot of—and, so sorry, Matt, about that dangling preposition, but you didn’t get to edit this piece, I’m afraid): It was the best of times, and the best of times.

Susan Turner-Lowe is vice president for communications at The Huntington.