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Otto leaves Jasper County Historical Museum

Nonprofit in search of new curator

It might have only been a year, but the memories Joe Otto made at the Jasper County Historical Museum will last a lifetime. Otto, the museum’s director, is leaving to take a job in Des Moines.

Thursday was Otto’s last day at the museum. He’s accepted a job with the Iowa Environmental Council, a nonprofit organization located in Des Moines. Otto will be working as a water policy specialist, where he will work on agricultural drainage issues.

Even though Otto’s new position is a move up, said he will miss working at the museum. During a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Otto referenced a line from his favorite television show, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” As Enterprise Captain Jean Luc Picard shows a visitor around the bridge of the ship, he can’t help but fondly remember his first assignment. Like Picard, Otto always look back to the museum, even as he moves on to a new adventure.

“I got my start here, and even though I only worked here for a year, it’ll be only a footnote in the rest of my life, but I’ll look back fondly on the place that gave me my start and let me grow,” Otto said.

The museum, which Otto describes as “a real hidden gem in Jasper County,” is a job Otto has enjoyed, but he feels like it’s time to move on.

“Connecting the history we have here to the communities is a really satisfying job,” Otto said. “If I could find a way to do that here for another 50 years while building a life for me and my family, I would do it.”

During his year-long tenure, Otto focused on bringing new ideas into the museum, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next spring. Museum board member Jack Streeter praised Otto for the fresh approach he brought to the museum.

“New blood in effect to the museum, new ideas, new perspectives on some things, he’s been very nice to work with,” Streeter said.

For Otto, who’s nearly finished with a doctorate in history from the University of Oklahoma, serving as the museum’s director was a chance to experience the best of Jasper County firsthand. From early mornings spent reading and researching in the museum’s library to conducting tours, Otto worked to put his personal touch on the facitiliy. One of his favorite exhibits is the gun case which holds Civil War era rifles from Harper’s Ferry. Otto would always unlock the case, giving visitors a chance to hold the rifles.

“Guests and volunteers come in here and not just observe our history from afar, but interact with it,” Otto said. “You’ve got to open up the gun case every now and then and take a look.”

The museum also hosted a group of riders during the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa last month. RAGBRAI riders from the Chicago Urban Bicycling Society, better known as the C.U.B.S., jokingly asked Otto if they could tour the museum after dark. Without hesitating, Otto granted their wish. With only a single flashlight Otto took the riders around the building.

“It was really, really, fun,” Otto said. “We laughed. We joked. It was unexpectedly awesome and thrilling at the same time.”

The job came with plenty of perks, including driving the museum’s restored 1965 Chevrolet pickup truck. Otto said he’ll miss driving the old truck. To keep the truck in good running order, Otto would regularly drive it around Newton. Both the truck and steam engine, another of Otto’s favorites, are examples of museum exhibits that visitors have a chance to experience firsthand. That perspective has helped keep the museum fresh and interesting for visitors, Streeter said.

“We’re increasing our range of projects and displays, we’re bringing new blood and new life to them, so we’re not presenting the same thing over and over again,” Streeter said. “Joe’s been very successful here.”

Streeter said the search for Otto’s replacement is already underway, the posting will remain open until the end of the month, but board members are hoping to find a viable candidate quickly.

“We’ve got a little ways to go before we make any decisions or before we interview anyone,” Streeter said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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