Last week, the Village lost a dear friend and colleague, Eric Russell. Our visitors better know him as Mr. Schmidt.
A few years after we opened the Saloon in 2004, we started thinking about adding a Main Street History Educator to rotate between the Bank, the General Store and the Saloon. At almost the exact same time, Eric asked me if there were any openings at the museum. He was scaling back his interior design business and wanted to spend more time with us. Eric’s involvement with DHV stretched back many years–he began as a volunteer and quickly became a part of the DHV Guild. Over the years, he helped plan luncheons, assisted with fundraisers and even served a stint as President of the Guild (still the only male to do so!). It never bothered him be the only man at meetings, and deep friendships formed between him and the other members.
Eric’s creativity and business sense completely transformed Main Street. Though he did spend some time in the Bank, he quickly gravitated towards the General Store for school tours and the Saloon for weekends. It was his idea to start selling root beer in the Saloon. Suddenly, the Saloon became a place where visitors sat, relaxed, and enjoyed themselves. It was a comfortable, friendly environment–one where you heard a few stories from Eric, had an ice cold beverage, and maybe played a game or two of checkers. The way our visitors used the Saloon made us rethink some of the other spaces in the Village, and we’re now working hard to create more friendly, relaxing and conversational spots.
In the General Store, Eric had great fun in being a salesman. Eventually, he thought to take the success of selling root beer and sell certain items from the museum store in the General Store. Kids loved the novelty of buying something in a historic space–and seeing the antique cash register in action! When it came time to do some exterior restoration on the General Store, we started thinking about possible interior changes as well. Through many conversations, and stories from Eric about how powerful it was to use the General Store rather than just look at the General Store, we developed the concept of turning it into almost a completely hands-on, participatory space. Eric served on the exhibit committee for that project, and his ideas are scattered throughout what you see today.
Eric was a joy to work with–his enthusiasm, creativity, and welcoming nature brought Main Street to life. Everyone who met Eric loved him. His work here at DHV and with the Guild transformed both organizations–we are better at what we do because of Eric.
When he was first diagnosed with lymphoma in November, we were all stunned. In the weeks following, he was constantly supported by his Village family with cards, visits, and more. I can’t say that I’m surprised at how the Guild and our staff rallied around Eric, but I am deeply proud and humbled by it. Eric was a very special man, but we’re also a pretty special museum. My heart goes out to his partner of 46 years, Jim Berger. And it also goes out to all of us who are missing our friend and colleague.
A memorial is planned at the Village on Sunday, April 27. Further details are still being determined, though I have a feeling that many of us will be lifting a bottle of root beer in honor of his life.