April 15, 2008


New Historical Society director begins job

More outreach to students planned along with an increase in attendance to society’s museum


Bob Ellis/staff photographer   
Mindy Leisenring stands Monday inside the Suggett House Museum on Homer Avenue. Leisenring has been hired to replace longtime director Mary Ann Kane, who has retired.

Staff Reporter

Mindy Leisenring started working as director of the Cortland County Historical Society on April 8, replacing longtime director Mary Ann Kane on the day the county turned 200 years old.
That bicentennial day was a long one for Leisenring, who lives in Cayuga County. She said she stayed to see the local skits that included several local residents dressed as historical figures, including Alton B. Parker, a Cortland man who ran for president against Theodore Roosevelt in 1900.
The new director learned of the position, not through advertisements, but by being contacted by trustees of the Historical Society.
She said she had been polishing silverware at the Seward House museum in Auburn, where she had interned, when a reporter from the Post Standard asked what she did as a profession. Leisenring replied to him that she interviewed for jobs and was still looking for a position. Her picture and words were printed and Historical Society members saw them and contacted her about the local job opening.
Leisenring, 25, said she received her master’s degree in public history from SUNY Albany in May 2007, but has been volunteering in museum settings since 2001. As an undergraduate at Keuka College, she was required to complete a volunteer internship every year. Her first experience as a freshman was at Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois and the Salt Museum.
“While I was there I found I enjoy working in museums,” Leisenring said.
She completed her degree in social studies education and then started working toward her master’s degree.
Christine Buck, who had served as interim director since February, said she had sat in on the interviewing process.
She said a couple of things stood out about Leisenring.
“She has really good training for the position,” said Buck, who added Leisenring also spoke well and was enthusiastic. “She had some good ideas for moving forward, and her references were impeccable.”
Buck said Leisenring has some good ideas to reach more students in the county and encourage people to come to the Suggett House Museum and Kellogg Memorial Research Center at 25 Homer Ave. in Cortland.
Trustees on the search committee agreed.
Mike Stapleton said she came well recommended and had excellent credentials. Despite her age, he said she had the most experience and best education among candidates. He would not give the number of candidates for the position, other than to say more than one applied.
“She certainly has a desire to pursue museum research and management as a career,” Stapleton said.
“I thought she was a dynamo,” said Kevin Sheets, another trustee. “She has such incredible enthusiasm and energy,” he said, adding he thinks she will quickly become well informed on Cortland County history.
Sheets said the new director will be able to look at the Historical Society with fresh eyes and with her educational background be able to develop educational programs to serve more elementary and high school students from all areas of the county.
“She’s told me she’s been rummaging in the library already,” he said.
Currently living in Port Byron, Leisenring said she plans to move to Cortland before winter.
Leisenring will be in charge of budgeting, programming and bringing in speakers from the outside. Kane, who had been director for nearly 20 years, will continue to be city historian and work from her house on Groton Avenue.
Kane said she had just briefly met Leisenring during the stamp cancellation on the day of the bicentennial.
Buck said she would continue to help with the day-to-day finances to give Leisenring more opportunities to develop programs.
Leisenring said perhaps her biggest challenge will be updating the Web site and dealing with a “technology lag.” She said she did not realize the Historical Society did not have high speed Internet access. Monday she was busy trying to find information on Road Runner high-speed Internet service but was having difficulty pulling up the page on the society’s dial-up service.
Another challenge she has started addressing is putting together an exhibit celebrating the county’s bicentennial, which fell on the day she was hired.
“That will be a good way to learn the local history,” she said.
She said she just received some pictures from someone who worked at the Wickwire Bros. factory before it closed in the 1970s. She also has some artwork of Francis Carpenter, a Homer native famous for his paintings of Abraham Lincoln. She said the Civil War era is one of the periods she is interested in and it ties into the history of William Seward, who was Lincoln’s secretary of state and had been a state governor and United States senator.
The new director is already looking forward to creating an exhibit to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009 that will include the paintings of Carpenter.
Leisenring said she likes museum work because “no two days are ever the same. You get to meet all sorts of people with different backgrounds and different stories.”
The new director said objects tell stories, too. At the Seward House she got to touch, with white gloves, a desk of the First Continental Congress. “I can say I physically touched it.”
“I think she will make some changes that will be beneficial,” Sheets said. “I think she’s up for the challenge.”