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Jasper County Tribune

What does a docent do?

Dedicated volunteers guide guests at Jasper County Historical Museum

Marilyn Deutsch remembered her exact response when she was asked if she wanted to become a docent for the Jasper County Historical Museum:

“What’s a docent?”

That is a question asked by many newcomers of the local museum. By definition alone, a docent is merely a volunteer guide. But even that does not justly describe these staff members. Bill Perrenoud, executive director of Jasper County Historical Museum, pointed out a sign on the front counter that he says perfectly illustrates a docent’s place in the museum.

Perrenoud recited, “Docents are not paid not because they are worthless but because they are priceless.”

Indeed. In addition to touring guests around the museum, docents must integrate themselves into Jasper County’s history, memorizing and studying as many details, stories and dates as they can to adequately inform the public.

Perrenoud added, “They’re a guide with knowledge of what we have to offer and can help people by either guiding them, directing them (or) visiting with them.”

Deutsch, 89, said she has worked as a docent for roughly 11 years at the museum. She moved to Newton from Minnesota in 2002, so her background in Jasper County history was very limited until she joined her fellow docents.

Still, Deutsch picked up on the history rather quickly and gravitated toward some of the more homey exhibits in the museum, such was the displays on the top floor depicting what different homes were equipped with back in the 1930s and beyond. She especially enjoys showing off those displays to children, who often look upon the rudimentary appliances and toys with disbelief.

“We show them the history of it all or what an object is,” Deutsch said. “Each docent has their own particular interests. I like the house wife things and the old Victorian kitchen up there with the cook stove, because I grew up with the cook stove. That was my chore to fill the water tank on the end and bring in corn cobs and wood for the fire.”

Fellow docent Phyllis Cavitt has lived in Jasper County since 1932. Curiously enough, she knew some of the history surrounding the region — particularly the big name businesses that made an impact — but Cavitt, admittedly, did not know just how detailed it was until she joined the museum 10 to 15 years ago.

While she and Deutsch say they do not know everything about the county, they still take time to learn new things so they can provide answers to guests when needed. The more they learn, the more they appreciate the museum.

Near the end of our visit Thursday, I asked the two seasoned docents what the most important of their job is. Before they could answer, two gentlemen walked through the doors.

“Hi, guys!” Deutsch exclaimed.

“Welcome to our museum,” said Cavitt. “Are you here to go through our museum?”

One of the men answered, “Yeah, we’re here to take a look.”

Deutsch and Cavitt leaped from their seats in response. They had a job to do. And an important one at that. That was all the answer I needed.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

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