As director of visitor services at Ellwood House Museum, Donna Gable wears a lot of different hats. Probably the most important is serving as recruiter, trainer and scheduler for the museum’s volunteer docents, people who lead the tours. Although not a native of DeKalb, Gable said she attended college at Northern Illinois University and ended up staying here. Gable took a few minutes recently to discuss her role at the historic museum with reporter Debbie Behrends.
Behrends: Did you grow up in DeKalb?
Gable: No, I’m from La Grange. I came here to attend Northern and stuck around. I’ve been here 40 years. My father had relatives here, but when he was growing up in the ‘20s, a visit was an all-day affair and they stayed overnight. When he came with me for freshman orientation, the state had just finished I-88 all the way to DeKalb, and he couldn’t get over the fact that the drive was just about an hour.
Behrends: How did you get started working here?
Gable: I worked as a volunteer docent for three years, and I’ve been on the staff for the past 25 years.
Behrends: What is included in your position as director of visitor services at Ellwood House?
Gable: The biggest part of my job is to recruit, train and schedule our volunteer docents and volunteers that staff the desk in the visitor center. I also handle facility rentals, associate membership and lots of odds and ends.
Behrends: What does it take to be a volunteer docent?
Gable: I have a class starting in March for new docents. I have a few names of interested people, but I could always use more. To give a tour, you need to have knowledge of the family, the house and the barbed wire that provided the initial wealth for the Ellwood family. You have to learn about the things in the house. I don’t expect you to know everything, there’s staff that can help if you don’t have an answer.
I teach the mechanics of giving a tour. It’s not scripted, mostly because the tour will be different for a group of second-graders than for an antique club. After the class, each potential docent does a practice tour with me, they tag along with experienced guides, and when they’re ready, they can give a tour for family and friends. They don’t have to pay admission because it’s good practice. They learn to anticipate questions. Sometimes I have to push the baby birds out of the nest before they think they’re ready, but those who jump in find it enjoyable. I’ve been blessed that so many people are willing to volunteer.
Behrends: How is the volunteer experience different now than when you started nearly 30 years ago?
Gable: We are still learning things about this house. We are training docents differently today to know more because we have more general information. More information and materials like letters and diaries have come back to us. There are 300 to 400 Ellwood descendants across the country; not a one lives in DeKalb. We continually do research and impart our knowledge to the docents. We don’t expect them to know everything. No one can be an expert on the furniture, books, art, everything in the house, but they can always direct questions back to the staff. Anyone interested in being a docent is welcome to contact me at email@example.com or 815-756-4609.
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