Bernard Mayo (1902 – 1979) was Professor of American History at the University of Virginia from 1940 to 1972. “A Maine native who had attended his state university,” as his student F. Pendleton Gaines, Jr., President of Wofford College, described him, he was “a maverick Down-Easter who had spent most of his adult life in and around Washington.”
Bernard Mayo was born in the now nearly abandoned Maine mill town of Lewiston, and from 1920 – 1922 attended the University of Maine. He finished his undergraduate degree not at Maine, however, but at George Washington University (1924), where he also took his Master’s (1925). His Ph.D. came from nearby Johns Hopkins (1931). His early teaching jobs were around the Washington area too: first at National University (soon to merge with George Washington), then at American, then at Georgetown. His training was as an archive rat in the National Archives and the Library of Congress, and the result was a fearsome command of bibliography and historical detail. In graduate seminars this made him “utterly magnificent,” writes Pendleton Gaines; or, looked at in another light, utterly appalling: “Bernie loved to mention some obscure fact from an even more obscure historical journal and then chide his class for not knowing what he was talking about. I guess I have heard him say a thousand times, ‘Really, Mr. Smith (or Brown or Jones or Gaines), if we don’t know these elementary facts, how can we expect to understand the period?’ ” “I have never felt as stupid or ignorant, before or since, as I did in those seminars of Bernie’s.” Graduate training with Bernard Mayo was called “The Mayo Treatment.”
Mayo’s first book, Henry Clay: Spokesman of the New West (1927), was not only a landmark not only in the study of that great antebellum American statesman, and of the Whig Party (in which UVa has remained eminent) but also a monument in the professionalization and establishment of scholarly standards for the study of the history of United States. When Mayo moved to UVa in 1940, he began an intellectual journey back into the era of Jefferson. He was the author of Jefferson Himself: The Personal Narrative of a Many-Sided American (1942), a collection of the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and Myths and Men: Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (1959).
From 1966 until his retirement, Bernard Mayo lived in Pavilion IV on the University of Virginia Lawn with his wife Peggy (née McClure) and their poodle Susie, and kept over those seven years a continuous open house for undergraduates and friends (including Bernard Peyton Chamberlain, for whom History Department essay prizes are named). Upon his retirement, his students presented him with a Festschrift, edited by John Boles, and entitled America: The Middle Period. Essays in Honor of Bernard Mayo (University of Virginia Press, 1973). Mayo is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
The Mayonian Prize is awarded, annually, to the best work on American History published in the last four issues of Essays in History. The winner receives a 1000 dollar award as recognition for their contribution.