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New SOHS leader hopes to make past more visible

Robert "Rob" Esterlein doesn't accept the old saw that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

"That is wrong because the future never repeats the past," explained the new executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

"Every aspect of human life and human society — here, nationwide and around the world — is constantly changing.

"But if we are ignorant of the past, what we are condemned to do is enter our new world at all times uninformed, completely innocent with no experience behind us," he added.

"History gives us experience, perspective."

Esterlein's unanimous selection was announced Friday by Dick Thierolf, a local attorney who chairs the SOHS board. Esterlein was one of 27 people who applied for the job, which pays $50,000 a year, Thierolf noted.

"We had some excellent applicants," he said, adding he was particularly impressed with Esterlein's response to a question about using new media to reach out to local residents.

"What Rob said is that you have to start with a message," Thierolf noted. "He said, 'If you don't have a message that people are interested in hearing, it doesn't matter what medium you use to communicate. It is not going to hit home.' "

In addition to stressing the importance of history and employing all forms of communications to increase the historical society's visibility, Esterlein wants to work with local organizations and schools, including Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College, he noted.

"There is potential out there that we have barely begun to appreciate, and I think Rob can help take us in the right direction," Thierolf said.

Esterlein, 59, replaces former SOHS executive director Allison Weiss, who left in August to be closer to her family on the East Coast. Since her departure, Pat Harper has served as interim director.

A Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, Esterlein has a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas-Arlington, where he studied history and French. After graduate school he took a job with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and stayed for 23 years, becoming the facility's IMAX theater director.

While there, he worked with Robert "Chip" Lindsey, now his brother-in-law and director of the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland. The two married sisters who also were working at the Fort Worth museum.

Esterlein left that post in 2006 to start a private IMAX theater company, then took a job as chief operating officer for the Admiral Nimitz Foundation at Pacific War Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas. Nimitz is a native son of the town of about 15,000.

While working for the foundation, he helped raise more than $18 million to expand the museum. The expansion was completed in the fall of 2009.

In its tax return for 2009, the foundation listed Esterlein's compensation as $55,846, along with "other compensation" at $825.

He worked at the foundation until October of 2010, then took a job with the local Boys and Girls Club in Fredericksburg.

"It is a tourist mecca, getting a million to a million and a half visitors a year," he observed of Fredericksburg. "One of the things I became involved in there — and one thing an historical society like ours can really do — is promote cultural tourism. It can be the lifeblood of a community."

Esterlein, who will be moving to the Rogue Valley with his wife, Jane, was quick to observe he has a lot to learn about southwest Oregon. But he said he was impressed with the more than a dozen historical and genealogical societies in the area.

"There is deep interest and engagement in history on the part of a lot of local people," said Esterlein, adding that SOHS's financial challenges are not unique.

"All historical societies face funding problems, and a lot of them across the country have lost public funding in the last few years," he said. "Privately funding an historical society or museum is exactly what I'm used to. I'm ready to help us go out and earn our income, earn our way toward long-term stability.

"One of the ways to do that is more engagement with the community, having a presence that is far more visible in the community."

Visibility is critical, he said, adding that the SOHS-owned Hanley Farm between Jacksonville and Central Point offers great potential for increasing the society's public profile.

"(We) are very interested in promoting a great deal more programming out there," he said. "It is a beautiful setting. I think many, many excellent events will happen out there — programs, lecturers, traveling exhibits."

Although many people may say they aren't particularly interested in history, Esterlein doesn't buy it.

"The truth of the matter is they are," he said. "If you are a sports fan, you are interested in history. If you are a wine connoisseur, you are interested in history. If you are into retro-fashion, you are interested in history.

"But most people don't know they are interested until you go out to them where they live their lives and bring it in a context that matches their interests," he added. "They will go away with a greater understanding of what they do."

Esterlein would tell you that knowing the Oregon Ducks had not won the Rose Bowl since 1917 gave college sports fans a perspective on the importance of Monday's win over the Wisconsin Badgers.

"History can enrich every part of a person's life," he said. "History is also just interesting from an intellectual point of view. An understanding of and engagement with history brings psychological richness, both to the individual and to the community."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Esterlein, Rob