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Q&A with Kathy DiPhilippo - High-profile historian is on a mission

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Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2008 1:00 am

A CLOSER LOOK

The South Portland Historical Society operates through donations. Contributions can be sent to the South Portland Historical Society, P.O. Box 2623, South Portland, ME 04116.

More information is available on the historical society's Web site, www.southportland.org, or by calling 347-4137.

Whether she is guiding school tours, archiving old photos or redeeming donated bottles to raise funds, historian Kathy DiPhilippo is a tireless worker and a high-profile presence for the South Portland Historical Society.

As director of the nonprofit, DiPhilippo is helping to lead an ambitious effort to acquire the old Cushing's Point house, a brick captain's home that dates to the early 20th century. In addition to preserving a landmark, the historical society hopes to transform the building into a museum, learning center and permanent home for the nonprofit.

Although the society now boasts 450 members - from about 25 members five years ago - DiPhilippo's full-time work has largely been voluntary. Only recently has the society begun to pay DiPhilippo for writing grants and raising funds to acquire the home from Portland Pipeline.

The pipeline company is deciding this fall whether to sell the building to the society or donate it, if the group will move home and find a new site.

DiPhilippo will be involved with raising money to renovate the old home, pay for utility hookup and develop an operating budget. She also helps to organize and lead the society's oral history discussions and writes a popular local column on South Portland history.

"I do these things and its helps the society," she said, with characteristic modesty. "It makes it all worth it. Our goal is to preserve local history."

DiPhilippo, 40, grew up in South Portland and says she has had a lifelong interest in history. She has three children who attend South Portland schools. She also has written a book, "South Portland: A Nostalgic Look at Our Neighborhood Stores," which is sold at Nonesuch Books and through the historical society.

DiPhilippo paused from her busy schedule to talk about the role of the historical society in South Portland and why researching local history fascinates her.

Q. How long have you been working with the South Portland Historical Society? What drew you to the organization?

A. In early 2004, my friend Linda Eastman (now the society's president) asked if I would consider joining as the historian.

I had seen occasional mention in the newspaper of limited open hours at the society's then-museum in Thornton Heights, and a number of times had thought I would join, but had never seen information on how to do that. I asked for a brochure to sign up, and when I found out that the society didn't have one, I gave them a check for my membership and offered to design one.

Q. How do you see the role of the historical society in South Portland?

A. Local historical societies can be a vital part in the quality of life of a community, and they are as strong as the community that supports them. We are incredibly blessed in South Portland to have a large population of residents who are active, engaged and care very deeply about their city. Our limiting factor has been the lack of a permanent home. We are eager for the day when we can open our museum to bring South Portland's history to light.

We will also have a year-round series of lectures, educational and community programs, an expanded history library and research office and docents to interpret South Portland's history. We'd even love to have a junior docent program for teens. One of our goals is to work more closely with the school system, adding more local history curriculum.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your work as a historian?

A. Well, most historians love a good mystery. Sometimes it's a photograph that needs to be identified, or maybe some oral history that we want to document. I love sharing my love of history with others, so when I come across a new photo or some piece of history previously unknown to me, I'm usually excited about it and immediately want to share it with anyone who'll listen.

Q. Do historians just focus on the past? Or, does the past help to inform them about where we are as a city and society?

A. That's a two-part question for me, as some of my work is as an archivist. From a historian's standpoint, yes, I'd say we do spend quite a bit of time thinking about the past. Not dwelling in it, but certainly exploring it. You have one foot planted firmly in today, while the other is standing in whatever time period you're looking into. You're comparing similarities and … and thinking about what led to differences.

History is incredibly intriguing; it often repeats itself. You realize that even centuries ago, people were still people like us, just living in a different time. South Portland is so interesting with its very strong neighborhood identities, which are directly linked to the old villages of more than a century ago. And back to your first question, from an archivist's standpoint, you actually spend most of your time thinking about the future. How can I best preserve an artifact, so that it will still be here in 300 years?

Q. How much of your work is voluntary for the South Portland HistoricalSociety? It seems you always are at work for the organization.

A. As the society's historian, I have been working strictly as a volunteer since 2004. However, in the past year, since we started the capital campaign, the society has paid me for some part-time work as its executive director. I am paid for my grant-writing and fundraising work. It probably seems like I'm always at work because I tend to be the one in the public eye, via the column, lectures and so forth, but we have a very active and talented board of directors, and those close to the society know that Linda Eastman and I are virtually joined at the hip. I have a deep respect for her dedication and for her abilities in leading our organization.

Q. How many artifacts does the South Portland Historical Society have? Are they all in storage until the organization has a permanent home?

A. We have a wide variety of materials in our collection: photographs, documents, maps, atlases, books, art, textiles, glass, ceramics, furniture. Our photo collection is one of our significant holdings… So far, over 3,000 photographs have been documented, but we still have more photos in archival boxes and albums that haven't been recorded yet. We do have a lot of our collection in storage in multiple locations. But we also have some of our photographs, documents, and research library in our office in City Hall.

Welcome to the discussion.