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Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Watkins volunteer devoted to organizing history

September 29, 2013

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Only in Lawrence 2013
The Journal-World asked Lawrenceians to tell us about the unsung heroes in the community, resulting in the annual Only in Lawrence feature.
Mary Wallace, of Lawrence, pictured in the archive room at Watkin's Museum on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

Mary Wallace, of Lawrence, pictured in the archive room at Watkin's Museum on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

Fights over railroad rights of way. Car owners in 1929 and the makes and models of their cars. Six different parties of the Emigrant Aid Society that helped found Lawrence.

Every rural school that ever existed in Douglas County.

• • •

These are but a few of the topics that Mary Wallace has delved into as a research room volunteer at the Watkins Museum of History. What started as piles of papers and folders scattered about the room Wallace has transformed into a thoughtful and meticulous archive that contains documents from the entire recorded history of Douglas County.

She went about the project almost entirely on her own, drawing on her more than 40 years of work as a journalist, organizing and cross-referencing information and files in ways that even the museum staff had not thought of.

To organize the research room successfully, Wallace did not just have to see every document, but she also had to read every detail. As a result, she is well-versed in the intricacies of the county’s history, which is very helpful for students, researchers and genealogists who depend on the museum’s archives.

“I don’t think there are any dull files. There’s something interesting in every one. They have all floated past my eyes at one time,” Wallace said.

The museum staff marvel at the magnitude of Wallace’s work. Now that she has sorted the past files that were in disarray – it took about four years of working almost every day – she continues to clip, file and cross-reference current articles and research that her journalist’s eye tells her someone might want to know about someday. She also serves as a point person for anyone who comes to the museum to do research.

“She does something that if we had to staff it with a paid person, it’s so valuable, we couldn’t afford it,” said museum Executive Director Steve Nowak. “We have a number of dedicated volunteers who do great work for us. But ‘dedication’ barely describes what Mary does for us.”

Brittany Keegan, the museum’s curator/collections manager, said she had learned from Wallace how to think more broadly about exhibits and topics and to research all angles of an event or topic.

“I definitely think she has a mind toward understanding what needs to be collected – not only the big events, but the everyday events. Having her understanding of what is news has really helped us shape what we have on file,” Keegan said.

For example, Keegan said that Wallace had been filing information about the recent confirmation of Caleb Stegall, Gov. Sam Brownback’s chief counsel, to the Kansas Court of Appeals. Wallace also has been keeping track of the Lawrence school district’s school bond to improve elementary schools and expand technical education.

“She’s really helping to structure the system and make sure it maintains its integrity. That helps us much more easily address people’s questions,” Nowak said.

Because of Wallace’s hard work and ingenuity, the museum’s research room not only has become a more orderly and informative place, but the museum also has been able to increase its programming for the community. Nowak said the museum’s program “Who lived in my house?” came directly from Wallace’s work with the files about historic residences.

Wallace retired from Kansas University’s School of Journalism in 2008; she had been assistant dean for 31 years. Before that, she was a reporter for The Ann Arbor News and the newspaper in Chapel Hill, N.C. She had always enjoyed coming to the museum to see the quilts, playhouse and electric car, but she didn’t become interested in volunteering until she saw her son volunteering to enter photos into the computer. Then, she said, the curator pointed her toward the research room and told her to see what she could do.

Wallace said she had been inspired by some of the stories and files she had come across.

“I have more of a sense of the heroics of history. Women who were widowed in wars, who raised their children and then went on to become lawyers and doctors and such,” she said. “Every day it’s a learning experience, and I learn about admirable people doing admirable things – and a few horrible people doing horrible things, too.”

Wallace said she was intrigued by the number of new business owners who came to research their historic buildings and the number of residents who wanted to know about their homes.

“This city seems more aware of its history of development than any place I’ve lived, and I find that fascinating,” Wallace said.

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