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Indiana County's historical society begins new chapter with expanded staff

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 6:12 p.m.
Bruce Siskawicz | Trib Total Media
Indiana County Historical Society Museum executive director Roberta Ryan in the coal exhibit.
Bruce Siskawicz | Trib Total Media
Indiana County Historical Society Museum curator Clerissa Connelly prepares to hang 'Buttermilk falls, Near Clyde,' one of the paintings of the late Jacob Sweitzer of Armagh to be featured in an exhibit starting in late August and running through October.
Bruce Siskawicz | Trib Total Media
Indiana County Historical Society Museum administrative assistant D.J. Hendrickson show part of the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame items.

It has been a summer of change at the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County.

The most notable changes have been in personnel. Former executive director Colleen Chambers retired from her position and three new people have been hired.

The society's new executive director, Roberta Ryan, brings to her new position an impressive business background that includes 17 years of experience with Indiana County Domestic Relations and 13 years with Merrill Lynch.

Ryan worked part-time for the historical society in April, then left for another job. When she heard that Chambers was leaving, she applied for the vacancy and was unanimously approved by the society's board of directors.

Ryan has been on the job for almost a month and says her primary focus now is on learning. “I have to get to know everything about the society from the roof to the administrative parts,” she said. “I oversee the staff and the finances. I have a lot I want to accomplish, but right now I just want to learn more about the daily operations of the society and keep it running the best I can. That will take some time.”

Ryan reports directly to the board of directors while other employees and volunteers report to her.

“This is certainly a change from anything I've done before,” she said, “but I think I will enjoy it. I like old quilts and furs. I like to sew. I like seeing the exhibits here about how people lived.” Ryan currently lives in Indiana, but she grew up in Lucernemines.

Along with being enthusiastically received by the board of directors, Ryan also has the approval of her predecessor. “I know she is going to do an excellent job,” Chambers said. “The society was lucky to get her.”

The society also hired a curator and an administrative assistant this summer, the first time the organization has had paid employees other than the executive director. Each of the part-time positions will entail between 28 and 35 hours of work per week.

Clerissa Connelly came on board July 1 in the new curator post. She is an Indiana native who graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania this year with a degree in art history and a minor in anthropology. While in school, she completed an internship at the society's museum at 621 Wayne Ave., Indiana.

In addition to cataloging artifacts and coordinating exhibits with museum chairperson Mary Yanity, Connelly's duties include tours, managing interns, implementing preservation techniques, writing grant applications and penning The Collection Corner for the society's newsletter.

Connelly said her goal is to catalog the society's entire collection of artifacts and have information on them readily accessible. “I want to get the word out that we have all these artifacts and the museum and have more people enjoying them,” she said.

D.J. Hendrickson, the new administrative assistant, began her job in May. She lives in Homer City and has a master's degree from IUP. Her background includes working for publishers, and she is currently a freelance editor.

One of Hendrickson's duties is overseeing the society's volunteers. She said there are about 40 regular volunteers, but that number can grow to nearly 100 when students pitch in during the school year.

Hendrickson also helps people with research in the society's genealogical library, answers phones and assists Dorie Leathers, the editor of the society‘s newsletter.

Another significant change that occurred over the summer was installation of the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame as a permanent exhibit at the museum.

Each year since 1984, between four and nine county residents who have demonstrated athletic excellence have been inducted into the local hall. A plaque with each inductee's name and sport as well as a photograph of the honoree had been displayed in Fire Mountain Restaurant at Indiana's Town Fair Plaza.

When that establishment closed, the historical society took the displaced plaques and pictures and cleaned them. They'll be displayed in their new home on a rotating basis.

There are other sports-related items at the museum and, according to Yanity, the society is looking for more memorabilia to add to the display.

Writing in a recent newsletter, she stated that any older sports-related artifacts would be welcomed including photos, programs and such equipment as balls, bats, gloves, golf clubs, tennis racquets or hockey sticks. The items, which need not have a connection to the Hall of Fame, may be donated or loaned to the society.

Ryan pointed out two other new displays in the museum. One is a history of the Red Cross in Indiana County and the other deals with local musicians.

In looking back at her years with the historical society, Chambers said, “I started in 1998. My background was managing home health agencies, so this was really something different for me. I had moved from Greensburg to Indiana to be closer to my family and saw an ad in the paper for the job. They needed my skills in business management and grant-writing, so I made a commitment to stay for two years.”

Chambers actually did leave the job after two years, but the board asked her to return a year later — and she did, staying until her retirement this summer.

“It's a tremendous effort of love,” she said of the job. “It's a big job with so many facets. All in all it was a wonderful experience for me. I hope it was for the society as well.”

Chambers can look back with pride on the many advancements that occurred at the society during her tenure.

That includes expanding operations from the society's historic Silas M. Clark House to include the adjacent former armory that now houses the organization's museum.

Fundraising efforts generated a half million dollars for creation of the Indiana County memorial to veterans that is housed on the second floor of the museum. It was dedicated on Veterans Day in 2003.

Another accomplishment was adding to the genealogy library and bringing it up to date. “We were just beginning to catalog the photograph collection when I left,” Chambers said.

Chambers is unsure of her plans for the future. “I haven't had a vacation in a while, so I want to take some time for myself. My husband is retiring, so this is a good time for that,” she said. “Beyond that, I don't know. I'm sure I'll find something to keep me busy.”

As the society moves forward with its new staff, it is looking to recruit more volunteers in various areas.

Building and grounds volunteers are needed to help with upkeep and janitorial tasks. The society also could use a collections assistant, a special events volunteer and someone experienced in information technology.

Additional volunteer positions are available in the genealogy library, including for teens who are at least 12 years old. Those interested in helping should contact the society at 724-463-9600.

The society's museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. There is no charge for admission.

Jeanette Wolff is a freelance writer.

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