Editor’s note: Craig Clohessy writes a weekly Q&A column, Casual Friday, for the Lewiston Tribune. This column originally appeared Friday in the Tribune.
Mary Reed is quick to express her appreciation for recent accolades she received for a lifetime commitment to Idaho’s rich history. And like a true historian, she just as quickly shines the light on the good work being done by the state’s many museums.
Reed, formerly of Moscow and now of Pullman, is one of two recipients of the 2020 Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities award given out by the Idaho Humanities Council. Her co-recipient this year is Hope Benedict, of Salmon, longtime president of the Lemhi County Historical Society. The two will be recognized during invitation-only ceremonies in the weeks ahead in Moscow and Salmon.
“It’s a very personal tribute to me and recognition of work I’ve done, so that really pleases me,” Reed said of receiving the award. “But it also recognizes the status of museums in Idaho. I really want to share the reward with them because they work so hard with so little funds and very few staff members. They do an amazing amount of work, and it’s so crucial to understanding of history to have these museums collecting our local documents and working with local citizens because everyone has a history. That’s what’s so exciting about being in the museum field, because you can touch everyone.”
Craig Clohessy: Many remember you from your 23 years as executive director of the Latah County Historical Society, which you retired from in 2006. Can you catch everyone up on what all you’ve been involved with since retiring?
Mary Reed: I was very fortunate that the Idaho Heritage Trust sponsored me as a consultant to work with museums in Idaho. And that was to work with them and their boards about doing interpretive exhibits. A lot of museums were not telling their own stories, and I really wanted not only to go in and talk to them about my ideas but what they could do with their museum and their wonderful history. We also had money to give to them. There are a lot of consultants who will tell you what to do, but they don’t tell you how to pay for it.
It was a great partnership, and we called it a partnership. ... It was an extremely rewarding period after my retirement.
CC: Haven’t you recently helped with the revamp at the museum at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood?
MR: Yes, yes. I’ve worked with my husband, Keith Petersen, who most people know. They’re a museum with a monastery with an incredible history of these young women coming over to the Wild West from Switzerland.
We gave them our ideas and worked with them about how to tell their story to the people. We had a four- or five-year process to put these exhibits in place. We got such great support from the sisters. They are very well educated women, very capable, have done so much work in Idaho that I’m really gratified to bring their story out to people.
CC: Has history, museums and the like always been your passion?
MR: Well, I never really thought about it at the time, but now that I look back at it I was always very curious about how things happened. My family was a great resource because we always talked a lot at the dinner table and read a lot of books. But I really discovered my passion when I was going to the university and trying to think of what I wanted to do, and it seemed to be that history was the best place to start to ground yourself in because history is at the bottom of everything you know, all of our intellectual pursuits and all of the different areas that we are interested in. There’s always the history that binds us.
I was also in (University of California at) Berkeley at the time, the 1960s — the great intellectual upheaval, the protests against the Vietnam War, and it was a very rich intellectual field because everyone was talking and debating and protesting and a lovely, lovely mix.
CC: Sometimes it feels the times are starting to mirror themselves. Do you get that takeaway?
MR: Oh, I think so because it’s such a grassroots movement. It’s also an educational process (as) we learn about what’s happened in this country. We can’t just accept our history as something that’s so wonderful and splendid and nothing bad happened, but start learning about all of the problems, the situations, the challenges and how much more we have to accomplish. I think there is a great parallel between them because when we started protesting the Vietnam War we were really looked on with a lot of skepticism, a lot of even hatred against why we were protesting against our country. But it was the discovery and the analysis and people who spoke up that really changed things.
CC: You lived for almost two years in Croatia on a Fulbright Fellowship. Talk about your research and what eventually became your doctoral dissertation.
MR: At that time ... people were beginning to be interested in women’s roles (in history). I had been in Yugoslavia just doing a summer trip, and it seemed to be a very interesting place that no one knew much about. When I was traveling I met someone in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, who was involved in the Partisan movement. That became my dissertation because these women did incredible things and I felt that their resistance (during World War II) against the Nazis under the leadership of (Josip Broz) Tito was quite exceptional.
I was able to interview some of these women, become friends with them and also did an amazing amount of research in the archives there. I visited sites around the country that were important to the resistance.
At the time ... I don’t think anyone was approaching the history of Yugoslavia in that period. There were people who were anthropologists who were interested in peasant and traditional cultures. There were people interested in the politics of it, but just to try to examine it from a cultural and a human perspective was very, very rewarding to me.
The dissertation took a while to do. First of all I had to learn Croatian, and learning a Slavic language is not very easy. It’s very, very different from French or English or Italian. I did a lot of translations and just recently I had to clean out some of my research notes, and I think I had three or four boxes of all this material.
CC: How many languages do you speak?
MR: I really only speak English well. I know a little French. I do not have a knack for languages; it does not come easy to me, but I got to the point that when I was in Croatia I was able to read in my field. I knew all the words for battles and struggles and that sort of thing, but it was always a challenge for me.
CC: You’re married to a fellow historian. How did you and Keith Petersen get together?
MR: It was really serendipity. At that time I was a single woman, and I joined a singles group. They were going to meet at the McConnell Mansion (in Moscow), where the historical society is, for mint juleps and to look at the exhibits there, and that’s where I met Keith. We went out on a date, and we were talking so long we closed down the restaurant; they finally had to tell us to leave. It’s been a wonderful relationship because you know we have the same interests, the same curiosities and we really, really have enjoyed our time together traveling and reading and sharing things.
CC: Are there any new projects you’re working on?
MR: After I retired, I took up watercolor painting. I had never even taken an art course, but I had been interested in it so now I’m in the Palouse Watercolor Socius. In fact, I’m the president, which is rather interesting to have a history background and join an art group.
CC: Anything else you’d like to add?
MR: I would like to talk about the Idaho Association of Museums because that’s one thing I’m very proud of. It was in 1990, and at that time, although this organization had its beginnings in the late 1970s, they had just become very inactive. I just saw there was a need to get it going again. I and other people in the museum field revived it, and it was really a pleasure to work for. I was president, I was on the board. We did a lot of workshops and did a lot of consulting and helped museums, and it was a wonderful thing because Idaho is a small state and it has a great network. Unlike Washington where I live now, we know each other. It was a great platform to share ideas, to do good work and to travel throughout the state. Keith and I did a lot of consulting too after I retired, so we would go into a museum and help them. It’s been a great, great journey.
Clohessy is managing editor of the Lewiston Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2251.