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Putting a Friendly Face on the Past

Wiests receive Historic Madison’s
‘Docent of the Year’ award

They are among several
HMI volunteers recognized

(February 2014) – While the beautiful museum properties maintained by Historic Madison Inc. draw enthusiastic crowds of tourists and visitors every year, it is the people behind the buildings that truly bring the structures to life. Any time a guest enters an HMI site, he is greeted by a docent who shares the history of the building and the more personal stories of those who lived and worked there.

Don & Jill Wiest

Photo by Lela Bradshaw

Jill and Don Wiest of Madison, Ind., were honored by Historic Madison Inc. as the “Docents of the Year.”

“Our docents are the face of Historic Madison to the public,” says HMI President and Executive Director John Stacier.
Two smiling faces that have done so much work to share and preserve the history of Madison were recently recognized when Don and Jill Wiest were named HMI’s Docents of the Year. Stacier highlights the couple’s “great enthusiasm” and their willingness to step forward “whenever we needed an extra hand or someone else to help us out.” In addition to leading tours at a variety of sites, the Wiests can also be found behind the scenes polishing silverware, repairing an antique chandelier or just setting up chairs for an event.
“They spend numerous hours volunteering their time for just about every project we put on. They are very committed people, both of them,” said HMI Program Director Rhonda Deeg.
On Dec. 11, HMI’s Board of Directors honored its many volunteers at the annual Volunteer Recognition and HMI Holiday Gathering. More than 60 volunteers gathered. Staicer thanked them for their service to HMI.
“At this event, we celebrate all of our volunteers,” Staicer told the group. “Without you, Historic Madison Inc. would not be able to fulfill its vision to enrich the community with our historic built environment. You are our best advocates. Your passion, dedication and commitment show to all. Today, we say thank you for all you do.”
Last year, HMI volunteers contributed more than 2,700 hours to the organization.

Historic Madison Inc. Award Winners

• HMI Board Member of the Year: Dave Dionne

• Special Volunteer of the Year: Gail Karns and Sara Guzman

• Special Project of the Year for their time and effort in making the Jeremiah Sullivan Bake house operable again: Steve Thomas, Walt Dubbeld and Pat Cunningham

• Certificate of Recognition for her contribution and service as President of the HMI Docent Board of Directors: Juanita DeWeese

• Other Docents were also awarded for their time spent at the various properties: Barbara Kiffmeyer and Louise Kant for the Costigan House; Eleanor Alexander and Paul Carmony for Dr. Hutchings Office; Jan Vetrhus for the Sullivan House; and Don Wiest for the Saddletree Factory.

When the Wiests retired to Madison in 2010. Jill says that “the first thing we did was sign up for HMI.” Don, 64, and Jill, 65, graduated from Hanover College but had spent the past few decades in the Washington, D.C., area. Jill spent her early professional life working in Congressman David Dennis’ office before moving to Veteran’s Affairs, where she worked for more than 30 years. During her time in Washington, she would often find herself showing Indiana visitors around the Capital area and doing what she could to make their stay more enjoyable – much like the work she currently does with HMI.
Don taught English for many years at Jeb Stuart High School, which educates students from more than 70 countries. While in Virginia, the couple’s love of history and preservation led them to volunteer at the Historic Rippon Lodge, built in the mid-1700s. HMI would prove a natural fit not only due to the Wiests’ dedication to community but also for a more personal reason as well. Jill says her mother, Betty Horton, had volunteered at the Francis Costigan House, one of HMI’s current properties.
“She and my dad were always inspiring for public service,” says Jill.
Don and Jill particularly enjoy doing their part to inspire the next generation of historical preservationists. Don typically leads tours at the Saddletree Factory and says that “the most fun is Heritage Days when the fourth-graders come. They’ve never seen machinery like this.”
He laughs, saying the children unfailingly “want to know what’s the most dangerous tool.”
The classes are amazed at seeing photos of children about their own ages working in the shop many years ago. Jill particularly enjoys taking youngsters through Doctor Hutchings’ Office, where she dramatically tells them that  “only one person actually lives here.” She then unveils a real skeleton to a chorus of impressed “Oooohs.”
While Don and Jill assist at a variety of HMI sites, they do have their favorites. Jill has a special fondness for the Costigan House, saying, “It is so amazing – how the architect could take a lot 22 feet across and you think you’re in a mansion.” She enjoys pointing out the different tricks used to fool the eye into believing the space is larger than it really is.
Don’s love of woodworking gives him a natural enthusiasm for the Saddletree Factory. “One of the most amazing things is that the technology for a lot of these tools has not changed in over 100 years,” he says.
While advances have made some of the equipment less dangerous to use, he says the old table saw at the factory is “in some ways actually safer” than the modern versions. For the tools that would prove risky for modern workers accustomed to today’s safety features, Don says, “They expected the workers to pay attention.” He notes that upon examining an 1885 photo of workers at the Saddletree Factory, “It seemed to me everyone had their fingers.”
The Wiests explain that not only does volunteering help the community, it helps them as well. Don says that while he considers himself something of an introvert, his time leading tours has made him more willing to assist visitors when he meets them on the street. “I’ve found that I’m much more comfortable if I see somebody holding the map upside down to go up and start a conversation,” he said.
Jill notes that her time with tourists has helped to build an even greater appreciation of Madison. “You meet people coming in from out of town and they’re just amazed – their downtowns are dying.”
The couple agrees that one of the easy things about volunteering for HMI is that there are opportunities for people to share a variety of passions. Whether your passion is gardening, historical research, restoring and preserving antiques or sharing stories about Madison, HMI is eager for your help.
“I don’t care what your skill is, there is a place for everybody,” Jill says.

• For information on touring one of HMI’s properties or to learn more about volunteering, call (812) 265-2967.

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