Remembering Marty

Old World Wisconsin opened to the public last week, as it has every May since 1976. As always, the new season brings a variety of changes intended to improve visitor experience. But this year also marks an unwanted and profound change. For the first time ever, Marty Perkins isn’t watching spring unfurl at the historic site.

Marty in front of Caldwell Farmers Hall, OWW.  (Milwaukee-Journal Sentinal photo.)

Marty started working at Old World in 1974. He began on the restoration crew, helping to dismantle, move, and reconstruct some of the historic structures.

Marty Perkins-Koepsell Construction1975

In 1975, Marty helped reconstruct the half-timbered Koepsell home in the German area.

For most of his career he served as Curator of Research and Interpretation. Most recently he concentrated on his primary love, research.

He loved his work. Part of his job involved driving backroads all over the state, searching for historic buildings. The people who owned the old homes or barns or shops quickly learned that Marty was a friendly, down-to-earth guy who truly wanted to hear their stories. He had a rare affinity for getting along with everyone.

Marty Perkins 2012

Marty sharing stories at the Kvaale Farm, OWW.

I met Marty in 1982, when I moved to Wisconsin to work at the site. On a cold April day during training Marty gathered the German area interpreters in one of the old farmhouses. We built a fire in the woodstove and he shared tales about the buildings and the people who once occupied them. I knew I’d come to the right place.

The Koepsell house, 1982.

The Koepsell house, 1982.

During the thirty-eight years he served at OWW, he saw many colleagues come and go. Marty chose to dedicate his professional life to the site he’d helped plan, develop, and interpret. No one knew more about Wisconsin’s ethnic history and architecture than he did. No one knew more about Wisconsin’s crossroads villages, or 19th-century baseball teams, or the workings of farmers’ clubs, or so many of the other topics he explored.

Gathering facts, though, wasn’t the point. He was a storyteller.

Marty leading a tour.

After Marty died suddenly last November, his coworkers referred to him as the heart and soul of Old World Wisconsin. He was. One colleague said that the site’s institutional memory had burned to the ground. That’s also true.

Marty was also the site’s conscience. He knew that research had to be the foundation of everything that happened at Old World Wisconsin.

That may sound obvious. But historic sites never get the funding they need, and research takes time. It is not uncommon for a distant administrator or generous donor to suggest some new program, with little thought given to what’s truly involved. At any site, loud voices can clamor for something old-timey if people think it would be fun and/or sell more admission tickets.

Marty calmly and pleasantly insisted on a solid foundation of research for every new program or initiative. He helped others see that documentation wouldn’t detract from popular programming, but instead enhance the site’s educational offerings.

The Benson House at OWW, Christmas Through The Years, 1990.

The Benson House at OWW, Christmas Through The Years, 1990.

Of all the things I learned from Marty in the years we worked together, that philosophy is perhaps the most important.

Now that I’m writing stories instead of greeting visitors, I try to bring that ethic to each new book project. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing an historical novel for children or fictionalizing historical events in a mystery for adult readers. Research forms the foundation of the story.

In 2012, Marty and I teamed up again to offer two History and Mystery tours at OWW.

But I’m not the only person Marty mentored.  I can’t even imagine how many lives he touched over the years:  how many novice interpreters came to share his passion for the site, how many colleagues developed a lifelong habit of looking for vernacular architecture on country drives, how many interns chose to make museum work a career.

His work lives in in the historic structures and programs at Old World Wisconsin, and in the many people he inspired.

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21 Responses to “Remembering Marty”

  1. cookiebaker13 Says:

    Kathleen, you are certainly the one to tell the story of/about Marty. The love all of us (that had worked at OWW) had for him sparkles in your writing. Thank you so very much for this article.

  2. Char Shirven Says:

    Thank you Kathleen – nobody could say it better. Warm and special memories of you and Marty interviewing and hiring me 23 years ago. and both of you imparting the love of the family stories and history of our Wisconsin immigrants. I miss him so much, but thankful that his love of OWW lives on in so many of us.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Char, that’s the only silver lining – that he impacted so many lives in a positive way, and now we can all try to honor his memory by passing along what he shared with us.

  3. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    The first time I met Marty was just 3 years ago when i spent a day with him, picking his brains about development and research, , gathering ideas for Norskedalen. He made me feel so welcome, and he was very personable and inspirational. I saw him several times after that, and he always remembered me. in that short time, i sensed what a very special person he was. Kathleen, perhaps his story needs to be told, perhaps you are the one to tell it.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks, Ruthann. You summed up one of the special things about Marty. Not only did he have incredible knowledge, but he had a rare gift for interacting with people. He truly loved meeting new friends, swapping stories, sharing knowledge. I’m glad you had a chance to meet him.

  4. kathibud5038een Greffin Popp Says:

    The first time I met Marty was last year at a book signing for Kathleen. I found Marty to be a wealth of information! You could tell just by listening to him he did alot of research and poured his heart and soul into OWW! Marty will always be every where you look at OWW! He was a very special man! I think there should be some type of memorial at OWW honoring this wonderful person who will be greatly missed.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I love this observation: “Marty will always be everywhere you look at OWW.” So true! He’s literally in every brick and pathway, in addition to the stories. I understand that plans for a memorial are being discussed.

  5. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    I believe we were at OWW last year when the last photo was taken. We really enjoyed meeting both of you and we’re sorry to hear of his passing. OWW certainly benefitted from his expertise.

  6. Rita Lurvey Says:

    I miss him and think of him all the time .

  7. Daniel and Donna Butt Says:

    Beautiful Blog and tribute Kathleen. Does anyone have a memorial planned at OWW. Donna and I would love to be involved. Something I could smith? Plant a tree? Dan

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Dan and Donna. I asked a current staffer recently, and was told that OWW and Marty’s family are having conversations about a memorial. That’s all I know. If I hear more, I’ll pass the word.

  8. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    Marty is overseeing from on high this year. I’m sure he is proud of the work that lives on. That is the best tribute to him–to carry on his work

  9. Mary Polasky Rassbach Says:

    This was a wonderful article you have written. It was forwarded to me by Marty’s sister, Linda Schmidt. I had distinct pleasure of meeting Marty right after he was born. We were next door neighbors for years in Mukwonago and friends forever up until his untimely death. My one visit to OWW was handled by Marty giving my family a personal, extended tour of the entire facility and grounds. He was a marvelous person, wonderful family man, and dedicated soul to his passion of Wisconsin history. He will be remembered by many.

  10. Kendall L. Walters Says:

    Perkins’ scouting for buildings, research and reports helped document the lives of families who lived in the buildings and produced social histories of the ethnic groups they represented.

  11. Sheri Watkins Says:

    Thank you Kathleen for the wonderful remembrance of Marty. As involved as he was with OWW, he was also deeply involved with his family. The Eagle Diamonds baseball team that played it’s games at OWW became a family affair. Marty coached as his 2 boys played and his wife and daughter cheered them all on! I enjoyed working with Marty as an interpreter many years ago and volunteering for Marty is the recent years to cheer on the Eagle Diamonds and his family. Marty’s wife Sue was also my 6th grade teacher. OWW, the state of Wisconsin and the village of Mukwonago has lost a great and knowledgeable man but his memory will live on in all of us. Keep telling the stories for many years to come!!

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