September 2015 marks the 5th year anniversary of my involvement with the FWHA, the Willard House Museum and Archives, the WCTU, and the story of the most amazing historical figure I’ve ever known, Frances Willard.
I knew little about Willard or the Museum, even though I was an undergraduate student at Northwestern University (biology and anthropology, not history) and have been an Evanston resident for over 40 years. (Yikes!) I was here when Evanston was dry and was vaguely aware of why it was – I accepted, like many erroneously still do, that it had something to do with those WCTU ladies who just didn’t want people to have any fun. After getting my MBA from NU, my career was in business, information services companies like Dun & Bradstreet, ACNielsen, Standard & Poor’s, and running the data business for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Still knew nothing about Willard and this little enclave. I was fortunate to retire early and decided to strike out on a second career, hoping to save the planet. I went back to NU to get a Master’s degree in Plant Biology and Conservation…hey, now I’m a “Triple Purple”! But I couldn’t find the right opportunity in the field which would keep me involved and actually seeing some progress that I personally made happen. Yeah, 25 years in Corporate America makes one pretty goal focused.
Then my neighbor, who is the Docent Coordinator at Willard House, and I had one of those over-the-fence conversations, talking about nothing in particular, and she mentioned the person who had been tending the gardens and grounds had had open heart surgery and that nobody had been doing that work for a few years now. At the time, September 2010, I had also been gardening in my own homes for over 25 years – I know what can happen when you let 3 years of garden maintenance slip by. So I offered to go over and see what I could do to spruce up the landscaping.
That’s a long intro to the following chain of events:
- See a really sorry landscape on 3 city lots…which of course, to me, means a brand new gardening playground
- Start to learn a bit about Frances Willard and this site, wedged between my alma mater’s campus and downtown Evanston, with several historic structures on it
- Get invited to a board meeting of the organization that runs the Museum and learn they need a new Treasurer (hmm, maybe my business skills would qualify me)
- Become Treasurer in April 2011. Having been an all-volunteer organization since its founding in 1990, I can tell you the corporate records were not exactly pristine…
- Over the course of the next year, the scales fall from my eyes and I realize that I am now working at this fantastic site of local, American, World, and women’s history. Willard has reminded me of the passionate idealism about human rights and social justice instilled in me by my mother and living in America in the 1960s
- I begin working with the WCTU as well, encouraging them to help restore this fabulous jewel of an historic site
- I convince myself that I can make this crucible of women’s self-empowerment into something great. I drive to Knightstown, Indiana to meet with the former WCTU President and creator of the FWHA to pitch my case that we need to have an Executive Director. Working full time. Without pay. She sees a decent offer and says OK. I get the job officially in November 2012.
- And here we are today.
So now, instead of trying to save the whole planet, I’m just trying to save this little part of it. (Although I haven’t given up on the rest.) For those of you who have experienced Willard House and the Archives in years past, I hope you can see the differences that have been made and feel that we are moving in the right direction. If so, keep supporting us in any way you can. For those of you who are new to us, I say join in the fun and sense of fulfillment of creating a cultural institution of local pride and national renown. In honor of the recent passing of Yogi Berra, I would imagine he would agree with me when I say When it comes to history, there’s no time like the present.
Executive Director and Head Gardener