If you want to know where you’re from, just ask Darla

NEW ULM – An inspiring community leader, a storyteller, an enthusiastic researcher, a historic treasure … that’s the picture her friends painted of Darla Gebhard when she was presented the 2013 New Ulm Athena Award at a banquet at the Holiday Inn Tuesday night.

Gebhard, the research librarian at the Brown County Historical Society Museum, was honored with the 23rd annual award, presented by Jensen Motors in partnership with the New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce.

“If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you are,” said Lisa Besemer, the 2011 Athena recipient and emcee for the award program. “If you want to know where you’re from, just ask Darla.”

Dan Hoisington, who has been involved in several research projects, publications and historic programs in New Ulm over the past 15 years, said he met Gebhard when he first came to New Ulm and started doing research on the city’s history for the Historical Preservation Commission.

Gebhard, he said, not only knew where to find the facts in the museum’s archives, she knew the stories behind them.

“I’d see a building and ask Darla what was interesting about it. She’d say, ‘Oh, that’s where the Gebhard murder took place,’ and she told me the whole story of how young Louis Gebhard was brutally murdered in his office on the second floor, and how George Koch was tried three times before he was acquitted. The Hummel Building is an interesting looking building. Darla told me that’s where Jensen Clothing was, and how the shop owner next door, Fred Meine, would sneak into Jensen’s store in the middle of the night and take his inventory, stick a tag on it and sell it in his own store.

“Sometimes I felt like I had walked into a Garrison Keillor monologue,” said Hoisington.

“L.P. Hartley wrote that ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.'” Hoisington said. “I have traveled in that country, and Darla’s there an awful lot. It’s nice to have a fellow traveler.”

Hoisington recounted finding a small clip from the Brown County Journal in the late 1890s about a paternity case in court. He mentioned it to Darla and soon she had found him pictures of the people involved, clippings on their careers, the links they had with other people.

“Darla gets it, and she enjoys showing it to you,” he said.

Lori Otis, who followed Gebhard as president of the Junior Pioneers, talked about Gebhard’s knowledge of the community’s history, her devotion and enthusiasm for preserving and presenting it. As the new generation is growing up in New Ulm, it is important to have someone like Gebhard there to counsel and give opportunities, she said.

Dr. John Isch, a retired Martin Luther College professor, talked about co-writing the book, “Eight Days in August,” with Gebhard. He said if you look at the acknowledgement of many of the local histories available at the museum, Gebhard’s name is mentioned time and again by authors grateful for her help. When he started collecting information for a book on the victims of the U.S.-Dakota War, he felt “it was time Darla had her name on the front of the book, not just the dedication page.”

He spoke of the dedication Gebhard had for accuracy, for attribution, for getting details right. He said the job of co-writing was difficult, “but we worked out our differences. I like to elaborate, and she is much more succinct. She cut off some of the most beautiful expressions I have ever written. … It’s amazing that we wrote so much in so short a time without shouting or throwing things at each other.”

Isch said he has seen Gebhard handling requests from researchers, listening to their questions, and responding with enthusiasm as she explores the files for information.

“She knows the people in those files like they are her family. She knows how they are all interrelated… I have never seen anyone get so excited over an 1880s probate record.”

Isch said that for all his time and accomplishments in New Ulm, what will probably be written on his gravestone is, “He co-wrote a book with Darla Gebhard.”

Kathleen Backer, a cousin and former colleague, talked about Gebhard’s humor, her commitment and dedication, her power of persuasion and ability to get others involved in activities.

Backer was executive director and curator of the museum during the time the museum made the move to its current location in the old New Ulm Post Office. After Backer left New Ulm for other opportunities, and came back, she said Gebhard got her involved in many different activities, from planning the city’s 150th anniversary celebration, to working with Turner Hall on its fundraising, to working on the 150th commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota War last year.

Backer said Gebhard always admired Fred Johnson, one of the museum founders, and Leota Kellet, one of its executive directors, as major figures in preserving New Ulm history.

“It’s time for Fred Johnson and Leota Kellet to move over and make room for you, as one of the three most important preservers of New Ulm’s history.”

After receiving the award, Gebhard recounted how she graduated from high school and had no inclination to further her education, or to have a career. She had no plans beyond marriage and home.

“But in May of 1971 I purchased a life membership in the Brown County Historical Society for $5. It was the best investment I ever made.”

Through volunteer work at the museum, she developed an interest in history, and when she needed to find a job and found the Minnesota Job Office would pay for an internship at a non-profit, she applied for and got a job at the museum.

She credited people there with teaching her and expanding her horizons, from Paul Klammer who hired her and taught her all about history, to Kathleen Backer from whom she learned about grant writing, supervising, and running the research archives, to Vicki Pieser who urged her to finish her education, and focused the museum on programs for children, to Trudy Beranek, who encouraged her to take the presidency at the Junior Pioneers, to John Isch, who helped her accomplish her dream of writing a book about the U.S.-Dakota War.

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