A Fallen Comrade: Martin Charles Perkins, 1951-2012

Professor John Krugler’s eulogy to one of the great public historians of Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Marty Perkins was the Curator of Research at Old World Wisconsin. He died of a heart attack on November 3, 2012 at his home in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. He will be missed, not only for the void he leaves at OWW, but for his great ability to work with people. He saw the best in people and was amazingly patient with them. Marty was universally loved and respected by all who knew him.

Marty earned his undergraduate degree in history from Carroll College and his graduate degree in Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He started working at OWW, an open-air museum in the Kettle Moraine state forest at Eagle in October 1974. In the previous year, the State Historical Society began construction of its ambitious project designed to salvage some of the deteriorating ethnic structures by transporting them to OWW. Perkins took an entry-level position in 1974 and worked on the construction crews. Similar to many public historians of his generation, Marty made himself invaluable and moved up the ranks. This photo shows Marty driving the front-end loader during the re-erection of the Schottler house. After a few years, he transferred to the nascent research department, which he later directed. Historic research was his love and passion and over the next thirty-seven years he became the heart and soul of the museum’s research and interpretation programs.

Marty was a ubiquitous presence at OWW. Beyond his considerable research responsibilities, he spent time searching for suitable ethnic buildings, writing lengthy interpretive manuals for most of the sixty-seven historic buildings at OWW, publishing articles for scholarly journals and the Friends Magazine, supervising the interpretative program and its interns, giving untold numbers of talks to groups throughout southeastern Wisconsin, fundraising, and creating and managing a vintage baseball team, the Eagle Diamonds.

Marty was a consummate storyteller. He made the history of the buildings and their inhabitants come alive to visitors. He was as much at ease talking to community groups as he was to classes of college students. He served as the museum’s emissary to the community. When community leaders or museum or academic professionals visited OWW, Marty led them on fascinating tours. He never faltered, always bringing enthusiasm and knowledge to the tours.

Of all his many successes, perhaps the most singular was assuming responsibility for creating the village that the 1968 Master Plan envisioned. Building on the research of his colleagues, Perkins launched a massive effort to revive and revise the plan, collect the required data to form an image of a typical rural nineteenth-century crossroads village, find the appropriate buildings that represented various immigrant groups, research their occupants, and create the storylines for each building.

My association with Marty began in the mid-1980s. We established an informal partnership between Marquette University and OWW and a strong friendship. Over the next twenty years and more, while he served as the Curator of Research and Interpretation, I sent numerous students interested in seeking careers in public history to him as interns. Those students idolized Marty and came back enthused about working as public historians. Marty made those college students feel big and many of those who worked with him succeeded as public historians. Marty remained keenly interested in their development and stayed in contact with them. It was his way of passing the baton in the race to make history accessible to the public. Incredible generosity and compassion defined his role as a supervisor and as a colleague, and made him a gifted teacher.

One of those students, Debra Grinnell, nee Krueger, interned at OWW as an undergraduate and then as a master’s student in the Historical Administration at Eastern Illinois University. In this photo, she interpreted one of the German sites to Father William Leahy, now president of Boston College, but then an assistant professor in our department. She wrote to me after I notified her of Marty’s death. “I so clearly remember borrowing a car and driving out to OWW for my interview with Marty in March prior to working there the summer after graduating from Marquette (1990). It was snowing and of course the site looked serene, tranquil. Marty was so warm and inviting. He never changed; some people are nice when you first meet them. He was kind through & through. And was a great teacher to have in first starting out in the museum world. There are MANY of us out there who received our hands-on foundation from OWW and Marty’s help.” [Grinnell to Krugler, 11-13-12] Deb started with an entry-level position at Naper Settlement and is the vice-president of museum services.

Left: John Krugler, right: Marty Perkins

Marty was a fixture in our Public History program. When I started teaching courses on Outdoor History Museums in the 1980s, he regularly spoke on topics relating to the museum. He last visited my history course (HIST 4100/5101- Public History) during the fall semester of 2011-2012. When I served on the OWW Foundation, I worked closely with him at the fundraising events such as the one pictured above. He and I made joint presentations on OWW at variety of museum functions. Most recently, we shared the podium at the recent meeting (April) of the OAH and the NCPH, where we gave papers on the topic of OWW’s effort to salvage and preserve some of Wisconsin’s rich ethnic built environment. Marty and I intended to write the history of one of the more interesting acquisitions at OWW, the Thomas General Store. This store was the last

Thomas General Store

addition to the Crossroads Village and exemplified the museum’s mission to salvage buildings that the owners intended to take down. It also showed that a private-public partnership between OWW and the OWW Foundation could work. It behooves me to complete the project.

This summer, I finished the final revisions on Creating Old World Wisconsin: The Struggle to Build an Outdoor History Museum of Ethnic Architecture (forthcoming, spring 2013). I know that in writing this histo

ry of OWW to 1979, I imposed on Marty’s good will on too many occasions. As I researched and wrote that book, I depended on Marty and his fantastic memory and knowledge of the sources. He was there at every step from the research to the final revisions (among his many talents was meticulous editing of manuscripts). He always responded gracefully to my every request no matter how trivial. I dedicated Creating Old World Wisconsin to Marty because he exemplified the dedication, the hard work, the creative imagination, and the willingness to go beyond the call of duty to make OWW come alive.

A few words on Marty’s long career at OWW seem so inadequate. Marty was too humble to claim any credit for himself, but he was the heart and soul of the museum. He was a team player and he excelled in working with others to accomplish important goals for OWW (the collaborative environment I try to inculcate in my public history students). Curator of Research was not just a job; it was his vocation. No one labored in that vineyard longer than Marty; no one labored more diligently. The buildings and the interpretations at OWW bear Marty’s imprimatur. Marty Perkins stands among a handful of men who created and brought to life “the world’s largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life.”

Marty Perkins was a true friend to our History Department and to our students. For me, he was a true comrade, a mate, if you will. I am grateful for all he did to mold me into a public historian. I will miss him.

OWW established the Marty Perkins Fund to honor him. You may want to consider a gift to OWW in Marty’s name to honor his many contributions to our Public History program. The address is Old World Wisconsin, PO Box 69, Eagle, Wisconsin 53199.

John Krugler is a professor of colonial and revolutionary American history.  He has devoted many years of his time and energy building a successful and popular public history program at Marquette University.   He is the author of several books including, most recently, Creating Old World Wisconsin: The Struggle to Build an Outdoor History Museum of Ethnic Architecture, and English and Catholic: The Lords Baltimore in Seventeenth-Century England and America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).


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