Finding balance in the archives

I abhor a mess. But for most of the last month, my dining room table has looked like this.

20180612_153908

As an executive director, I do an enormous amount of writing–grants, emails, newsletter articles, and blogs. But I had almost forgotten how historical writing stretches your brain in entirely different directions. It was almost like my brain was out of shape–but eventually, muscle memory took over. And it felt so good to be doing that kind of work again.

 

So, how did I get back into doing that sort of thing again? Several months ago, a friend asked if I would be willing to do a talk at her organization about the local suffrage movement. Though I continue to do extensive reading in the area of women’s history, I hadn’t done any real historical research or writing in almost a decade. My last big research project had been about Dallas clubwomen and their involvement in World War I. I knew there would be some overlap between that work and the suffrage movement–and I had always been curious about the local movement. Plus, she’s a good friend, and the anniversary of the federal amendment is approaching, so I figured it was manageable. And I had plenty of time.

Well, we all know about the lies we tell ourselves. Like “It won’t take that long,” and “I have plenty of time.” I might have been wrapping up my powerpoint the day before my presentation. And I did get a little stressed about finishing up. But I had such fun!

One of the unexpected joys of this project was learning more about a very familiar name. As a longtime staff member at Dallas Heritage Village, I definitely knew the name Barry Miller and that he was active in state politics. He and his wife, Minnie, were the second generation to live in Millermore, which today is the signature building at Dallas Heritage Village. When Minnie’s parents died in 1899, she and her family moved back to Millermore (and yes, a Miller married a Miller. It’s not confusing at all.) She ran the farm while Barry drove the five miles into town to continue his law practice. Evelyn, their youngest child, wrote a sketch about her parents, sharing the following about her father’s political career:

Papa became increasingly active in politics. Most often, he campaigned for friends or causes in which he believed, but occasionally for himself. He served in the Texas State Senate from 1899-1901, received a gubernatorial appointment to a district judgeship in Dallas in 1911, and served in the Texas House of Representatives in 1917-1922, and as Lieutenant Governor of Texas, 1925-1930. At first mamma HATED politics, and never came to like having her husband a candidate. (“Portrait Sketch of Mamma: Minnie K. Miller” by Evelyn Miller Crowell)

Among his early political accomplishments was authoring the legislation that made the bluebonnet the state flower of Texas in 1901. Apparently, the wife of the lawyer he apprenticed with when he first came to Texas always loved the flower—and he did it to honor her.

Barry_Miller
Barry Miller

Barry Miller certainly didn’t change his opinion through conversations at home. Evelyn writes: “Mamma had NOT wanted the vote, but when she got it, she took it very seriously.”  The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association used recent war work efforts as an opening. Clubwomen in Dallas were raising funds for the Women’s Oversea Hospital Unit, and Barry Miller contributed. “Dallas suffragists take this as a hopeful sign and hope that Judge Miller may yet be counted among the friends of equal suffrage.” (Dallas Morning News; March 5, 1918) Judge Miller, ever the politician, set before the suffragists a challenge to gather 5,000 signatures, though no legislation was currently pending. Two days later, the News reported that 1,000 names had already been collected. “These signatures are necessary,’ said Mrs. Nonie B. Mahoney, vice president of the Equal Suffrage Association, ‘in order to persuade one man, Barry Miller, that there is a silent sentiment in favor of suffrage in Dallas County. We are going to win. There is no chance for us to fail.” (Dallas Morning News; March 7, 1918) In addition to canvassing the women in their immediate circles, they also made special efforts to reach out to working women, visiting such local businesses as Sanger Brothers, Neiman Marcus, Butler Brothers, Brown Cracker and Candy Company, and the Wilson Building. In a March 9 article, announcing that they expected to go over the 5,000 mark that day, Mrs. Mahoney stated “The interest in this petition is not confined to any one class. The women of Highland Park and the mill districts are equally interested and equally anxious to sign.” Anecdotes about the signing efforts include a mother who had five daughters working in the factories who believed that their working conditions would improve with suffrage. Another women, ages 70, brought in a petition with over 200 signatures—and apologized. “I would have got a good many more, but I happened upon so many of my old friends that I just had to stop and chat with them a while.” (Dallas Morning News; March 9, 1918)

By March 10, they had reached 8,000 signatures. Upon their success, Mrs. Mahoney declared “The suffragists of Texas welcome the support of Mr. Miller. The suffragists accepted Barry Miller’s challenge and have shown what they are capable of doing, but they refuse to accept any more such challenges to unproductive labor. They can not spare any more time from war work.” (Dallas Morning News; March 19, 1918)

On March 15, just a few days after Mrs. Mahoney delivered 10,000 signatures to Rep. Barry Miller’s office, the House voted 84 to 34 to give women the right to vote in primary elections. Within a year, Barry became chairman of the Men’s League of the Dallas Equal Suffrage Association and was campaigning throughout the state, advocating for the federal suffrage amendment.

Over the last several years, there just hasn’t been time to do this kind of deep dive into history, even the history at our own site. And though deep historical research has never been an official part of my job, it is certainly why I got into this field in the first place. We have so many hidden stories at the Village, and with the changes in scholarship and the digitization of important resources, there are wonderful opportunities to discover those deeper and more complex stories. In the next year, we plan to embark on a new interpretative plan and will be diving much more deeply—as a team—into all the history the buildings at DHV contain.

In the meantime, I was also reminded of how important work balance can be. We talk a lot in this field about work/life balance. But as we mid-career professionals move up the ladder, we often have to leave behind whatever passion we had that got us into this business in the first place. I remember talking to a friend a few months ago who was incredibly frustrated with his current position: “I just miss doing history.” And I’ve felt that frustration too—for example, when I was knee deep in the homeless encampment crisis, it felt like an absolute relief to get back to doing more typical history museum work.

These last few months have reminded me that I need to continue to make space for history in my work life. You would think that would be obvious, after 14 years at a history museum, but my work priorities have changed so much over the years. I’m so very grateful for the nudge to do history again—and I’m not planning to wait 10 years before diving into the Hollinger boxes again.

 

Advertisements

Time Battles

For months, I had been looking forward to lunch on Friday, April 22.  As part of the North Texas Teen Book Festival, three very well known YA authors (Sarah Dessen, E. Lockhart and Ruta Sepetys) would be speaking, and there would be no teens to get in the way.  I knew the timing wasn’t ideal, work-wise, as we’re just a week out from our largest fundraiser of the year.  But I was going, because this was important to me.

As I was pulling out of my parking spot on Friday to head to Irving, my cell phone rang.  At that moment, my phone decided to freak out and wouldn’t let me answer the call or see who was calling.  I pulled back into my parking spot, fiddled with the phone, and saw that Evelyn, my curator had called.  Just as I was about to hit redial, there was a knock on my window.  A reporter from Channel 8 had arrived and wanted to talk to me about the homeless encampment behind the Farmstead.

I will admit that I didn’t react well. “Couldn’t they have called first?  Can’t they wait two hours?” Evelyn offered to talk to them.  But I knew that it should really be me. So, I allowed myself one more shout to the universe: “I was just trying to do something for myself!” and got out of the car to talk to the reporter. Amazingly, I made it to the lunch with 5 minutes to spare.

Since becoming Executive Director two years ago, the whole work/life balance thing has been a real struggle. Though everything worked out fine on Friday, it was more than a little stressful. I was frazzled as I talked to the reporter, frazzled as I drove to Irving, and frazzled for the first few minutes of the lunch.  Perhaps I was naive, but I really didn’t realize how radically my life would change as Executive Director.

About six months into ED life, I read Anne Ackerson’s Leadership Matters.  It’s a collection of profiles of various museum leaders, centered around some key ideas.  And, of course, there was a lot of talk about work/life balance.  It made me realize that I needed to stake my claim on a few of my hobbies and personal obligations and just let the rest go.  I’ve hired a maid, but still do a fair amount of yard work. I’ll let my DVR stack up in favor of reading. My church small group was already floundering before I became ED, but I didn’t pursue another one as I know I can’t commit to one specific night a week.

There are two things that I really try to make time for.  One is Jazzercise. This has been my workout of choice since grad school.  Though a few friends tease me, it makes me feel like I’m not actually exercising and does make me feel like I’m dancing. And it makes me happy.  My Jazzercise instructor retired a few years ago, so I had been working out at  home. A combination of mid-30s metabolism slow down and ED busyness means my weight has crept up a bit.  (And who has time to shop for new clothes?) Last summer, I randomly put on one of my Jazzercise DVDs and realized how much I missed it.  The nearest class is about 15 minutes away, but most weeks, I’m making it to the 7 a.m. class a few times a week. I’ve even rearranged some standing morning meetings to accommodate Jazzercise. My weight has stopped climbing, and I’m happier.

The other thing is the DFW chapter of the Forever Young Adult book club. Through this group, I’ve read so many great things and met some really great people. It is very rare for me to miss book club or not read the book.  Several fellow members were deeply involved in the planning of the book festival, so Friday’s luncheon wasn’t just about the authors but about some very good friends.

And then Saturday was the amazing festival with ALL THE TEENS. 8,000 of them, to be exact.  I moderated two panels, one on historical research (surprise!) and one on stand-alone novels. Because I’m an overachiever, I did my very best to read as much as I could of the 11 authors represented on my two panels.  I made it through 12 books in about 3 weeks. I don’t think I’ve read that obsessively since grad school, but the reading list was a lot more fun!  It’s been a very stressful month, especially with the work and worries surrounding the pending closure of Tent City and the impact that might have on the museum. But I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.  The energy was incredible.  And as a lifelong book lover, it was amazing to “go behind the curtain” and just hang out with the authors during lunch. I tried to keep my cool.  Maybe I succeeded.

History panel
“The Research Lab” panel: Libba Bray, Karen Blumenthal, Janet B. Taylor, Ruta Sepetys, Nathan Hale and me.
standalone panel
“One Story at a Time” Me with Adi Alsaid, Marisa Reichardt, Jennifer Mathieu, Maurene Goo, Ally Condie and Julie Buxbaum

Sometimes, as Executive Directors we have to do battle. It may be for our institutions. But it may also be to protect our personal time. It is so easy to get carried away in work, but I know I’m a better person and a better director if I make sure to make time for Jazzercise and book club and a few other things I love.

 

P. S. Ruta Sepetys–get to know her. Some of the best historical fiction I’ve ever read. But have tissues nearby.