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Caffery Award winner examines storied career of prize’s namesake

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There once was a time in Jessica Barton’s life when Ambassador Caffery was no more than a name on one of Lafayette’s busiest thoroughfares.

“I knew him as a street sign, but still not registering who he actually was,” she said.

Now, following a semester-long archival and writing project – the results of which won her this year’s Jefferson Caffery Research Award – Barton counts the longtime American diplomat and University of Louisiana at Lafayette alumnus among her favorite subjects.

“He was tremendously respected by leaders of numerous countries, many of whom did not like the United States one bit. But these leaders came to respect Caffery, leading to better international relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world,” she said. 

The Caffery prize recognizes outstanding student research that utilizes primary sources housed in Special Collections at Edith Garland Dupré Library at UL Lafayette. Special Collections is home to Caffery’s papers and other mementos of his career.

He served as a diplomat from 1911 to 1955. His postings during those 44 years took him to 12 foreign countries on five continents. Barton’s paper focuses on Caffery’s career between 1926 and 1944, when he served as United States ambassador to the Latin American nations of El Salvador, Colombia, Cuba and Brazil.

Barton said Caffery remains the only American diplomat appointed by eight consecutive presidents. “Presidents on all sides of the political spectrum wanted Caffery because he tried everything in his power to always do what was right,” even if it placed him at odds with American policies.

“He fought for the countries where he was posted, making the world as a whole a better place,” she explained. 

The Jefferson Caffery Papers housed in Special Collections includes 72 boxes of materials.

In her research, Barton focused on Caffery’s voluminous correspondence. There, she found letters between the ambassador and presidents, foreign dignitaries, and affluent members of American society.

“I wanted to see how he talked to people and what about his personality made him so successful as a diplomat. Seeing all of this made history much more tangible and real, not just a story in a book,” she said.

Barton produced the paper and the accompanying digital presentation as part of a senior capstone project overseen by Dr. David Squires, an assistant professor of English. Read the paper here.

Barton graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in May. She will begin law school at Loyola University New Orleans in August.

Like Jefferson Caffery, she is a Lafayette native.

Caffery and his wife Gertrude established the research award in 1967. Dupré Library and the University Library Committee administer the competition. A $500 prize accompanies the award.

Caffery was a member of the first class to enter Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute, now UL Lafayette, in 1901. The library’s Jefferson Caffery Louisiana Room is named in the diplomat’s honor.  

Find more information about the Jefferson Caffery Research Award.

Photo caption: Jessica Barton is winner of this year’s Jefferson Caffery Research Award. The prize’s namesake is at right. (Photo at left courtesy of Jessica Barton. Photo at right is courtesy of Special Collections at UL Lafayette).

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