Hawkins steps down into history

Jan. 29, 2014 @ 04:12 PM

In January 2001, John Hawkins showed up for his first day as director of the Caldwell Heritage Museum. His last day will be nearly 14 years later.

Earlier this month, Hawkins announced to the museum’s board of directors his plans to step down at the end of 2014. There was no one reason for the decision, Hawkins said – it was just time.

“Everything I’ve done in life, I’ve realized there is a time to let it go,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s any real thing that indicates that. It’s just a feeling that you have, as much as anything else. It was time to go.”

When Hawkins started as director in 2001, he was a retired high school English teacher who had just left a job as a tour guide with the Maiden-based Christian tours. In the 13 years since, he has worked to put the museum on the map, working with local media and making the rounds at civic organizations. Attendance has ticked up, from fewer than 1,000 visits in 2001 to an all-time high of 3,600 in 2013.

Hawkins works most of the five days a week the museum is open, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The job comes with a little of everything – “from scrubbing commodes and cleaning the building to making the major decisions,” along with organizing displays seeing to visitors.  

Hawkins has done all of that for free, except for some mileage reimbursement. The museum’s board hopes to pay its next director a full-time salary, but that will take some additional fundraising, board chairman Mike Gibbons said.  

Hawkins also spends time fielding questions, letters and phone calls from people who have questions about their family’s history, said Colin Foust, the museum’s associate director.

“He gets very obscure questions sometimes,” Foust said. “If he doesn’t know the answer, he knows where to find it.”

Hawkins is a virtual encyclopedia of Caldwell County history, those who know him said.

“He’s the ultimate genealogist, he’s the ultimate historian,” Gibbons said. “He’s been the continuation of ideas and stories that people had developed in the past. He’s been able to tie in many of the old (Caldwell County) historians who were doing work prior to John, and he’s continued what they’d done.”

Hawkins was born in the Buffalo Cove community and has lived in Caldwell County his entire life, if you don’t count gaps for college and military service. His interest in local history was sparked in the 1970s when he realized that his father, a passionate genealogist, would take his knowledge with him when he died unless someone worked to write it all down.

So Hawkins became a genealogist, but as he worked to unwind the tangled string of family relationships, he started to think of the people he was studying as more than names on a family tree.

“I got to thinking, you know, they did more than just live and die,” Hawkins said. “What did they do in the community? Were they elected officials? What did they do? And so that led me to trying to explore the county history.”

Though Hawkins will hand over the director’s title when the year ends, he has no plans to stop his dig into the county’s history – or his involvement with the museum. If he did, the museum’s board probably wouldn’t let him.

“We are not thinking that John is quitting, as such,” Gibbons said. “He is stepping down as our director. We intend to keep him active in working with and for the museum, whether it’s as a member of the board of directors or as a volunteer. We’re not going to allow him to just fade away.”