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September 2014


Marty Perkins leaves legacy at Old World Wisconsin

If the mark of a man can be measured by the line waiting to say goodbye, Marty Perkins' reach ran long and deep through the community he loved and studied as curator of research at Old World Wisconsin. Perkins, 61, died of a heart attack Nov. 3. The line of people waiting to pay their last respects at last week's service wound through First Congregational Church, out the door and down the block.

Perkins would have loved to walk back in time through the streets of Mukwonago to see how people lived.

"He had a sense of wonder for how the people lived," said his wife, Sue Perkins. "The passion he had for Old World started because of his family roots and his love for his family, both past and present. I think that's why he was a good listener; he wanted to know everybody's story."

From the Perkins family farm on Highway 83 where they raised Merino sheep, to his grandfather helping build Washington Avenue School and Walkers Grill, which was operated by his dad, Perkins' story started long ago in Muk wonago.

A 1973 Carroll College graduate with a bachelor's degree in history, Perkins went on to do his master's work in urban affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but his focus was always on the early planning of Waukesha County villages and towns, his wife explained.

After finishing his master's degree work, Perkins joined Old World in the mid-1970s on the restoration crew. Over the years, he worked as a research analyst and chief of the research section until he became curator of research and interpretation.

He loved research, finding historical buildings and looking at the families that lived there and their stories. When he found a Polish building in Pulaski, he spent the whole day sitting in the barn, surrounded by cows, listening to the farmer talk, with a cat balanced on his head.

"He said it was the darndest thing. He was so happy when he found that," recalled Sue Perkins.

Ellen Penwell, curator of collections at Old World, worked with Perkins for 17 years. She said many people thought of him as the heart and soul of Old World.

His exemplary career was marked "not solely by what he accomplished but, as importantly, by how he went about it," Penwell said. "I think of his outstanding professionalism, his unquestioned integrity as a historian, his generosity in sharing his knowledge and research, his attention to everyone he hired, trained and mentored, his wise counsel and intrepid memory."

Beneath Perkins' calm, kind demeanor lay a wealth of knowledge on Wisconsin's ethnic, social and architectural history, Penwell explained.

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.

"This effort grew into a deep research base, creating historical context for Old World's interpretive programming, and it is what gives Old World Wisconsin its credibility to this day, a site best known for its emphasis on authenticity and historical accuracy," said Penwell. "Although this was a team effort, it can be said without question that Marty's contribution played a significant role in building Old World Wisconsin, and certainly in maintaining the site's credibility over all these years.

Marty's most recent research was seen in the museum's newest program, Life on the Farm, where visitors perform chores like those of a real immigrant farm family.

Old World Director Dan Freas points to Life on the Farm as one of Perkins' biggest contributions, turning the Koepsel farm into something more interactive and fun but no less historically accurate. Perkins was also responsible for starting the vintage baseball team, the Eagle Diamonds, modeled after the 1860s Waukesha Diamonds, in 2005.

His work was meticulous, with a certain craftsmanship, and always designed to be accessible to the general public, Freas added. No plans have been determined for filling the gap left at Old World by Perkins' death, but the staff will be thinking about his legacy.

"Everything that we do moving forward will be based on research that Marty has done," said Freas. "Every visitor that comes to Old World Wisconsin, when they leave, they will take a bit of Marty with them."

Historical gardener Marcia Carmichael remembered Perkins' "sincere warmth and kindness; the thoroughness, care and balance with which he approached all things; his devotion to family, friends and Old World; his gentle supportive words; his ability to listen and not pass judgment; the way he connected with each person he had a conversation with, giving that person his total attention; his strong sense of morality; his wonderful sense of humor; his incredible power of recall - names, dates, places, circumstances, stories (and always accurate); his ability to find threads of connection in the world, and to make sense of them; his skills with the written as well as the spoken word."

"Marty touched us all, taught us innumerable lessons, helped us become better human beings, and will always be with us," said Carmichael.

Lisa McGovern, head of communications for Old World, spoke of Perkins' integrity. "Our good friend and colleague Marty daily defined character by example, and in so doing, brought to life this ageless attribute, with good cheer and equanimity, inspiring those whose lives were lucky enough to be touched by him," McGovern said. "For a humble man, his legacy is great."

Perkins' reach extended beyond the buildings at Old World Wisconsin. His legacy reaches as far as the Wisconsin Historical Society, according to Cheryl Sullivan, Wisconsin Historical Society director of the Division of Museums and Historic Sites. She said his research has enhanced the society's archives and contributed to the organization's ability to tell stories about Wisconsin.

Cheryl Sullivan, Wisconsin Historical Society director of the Division of Museums and Historic Sites, said his legacy extends to the Wisconsin Historical Society through what he gave in the form of research that has enhanced its archives and contributed to the society's ability to tell stories about Wisconsin.

"What a loss," said Sullivan. "He epitomized the society and Old World Wisconsin."

All of Perkins' records will be archived and stored, said Sullivan.

"He left a living legacy, there's no doubt about that," Sullivan added. "My heart goes out to the family."

Perkins loved to hear everybody's stories.

Now his own life story will become "an inspiring legacy that will outlive him through our telling," said Penwell. "In doing so, we uphold and honor this good man, his good work and above all else, his humanity."

Marty was survived by his wife, Sue; children Lindsay Spielman, Robert and Scott Perkins; mother, Carolyn Perkins; and sister Linda Schmidt.

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