The Marblehead Historical Commission has appointed Pam Peterson, the former Marblehead Museum executive director, as its new chairperson.
Her installment marks a significant change for the commission, which is appointed by the Select Board. She succeeds Christopher Johnston, who provided “transformative” leadership to the commission for the past dozen years, according to officials.
“Chris has been devoted to the important work of preserving the history of Marblehead for over a decade, to make it more accessible and durable, more entertaining, and richer in its detail, complexity, and scope,” Marblehead Select Board Chair Moses Grader told the Marblehead Current. “The town owes him a debt of gratitude for his tireless volunteer leadership.”
A notable bookend
For most of his time on the Historical Commission, one could find Johnston tucked away three to four days per week in an ancillary room of the commission’s home, a second-floor Abbot Hall office.
Recently, he and his wife have been spending time in Arizona, where one of the couple’s daughters resides. He said he plans to serve out his term, but his chairmanship comes with a notable bookend: The final of three “Mapping Marblehead” exhibitions in the Old Town House, which looked at the town’s history, one century at a time, shuttered in October, bringing to a close a herculean effort years in the making.
“Those exhibits that the commission did were great, and boy were they fun,” Johnston said.
Select Board member Jackie Belf-Becker said Johnston has been “spot on with new ideas” and “captured the essence of Marblehead when making decisions,” which included developing a Historical Commission website and helping rearrange the Select Board Room in Abbot Hall.
“Nothing was too insignificant, from deciding where to hang a picture in the Select Board Room to monumental mapping projects, which were a labor of love,” Belf-Becker said. “The whole scope of Marblehead’s history was within his purview, and it was always a pleasure to work with him.”
Peterson said the Historical Commission exhibitions, in many ways, exemplified Johnston’s ability to unify volunteers around a common cause. The commission’s projects are supported with private donations and grants.
“We do not have a line item in the town budget,” Johnston said. “We are very fortunate that we are the beneficiaries of [the Harold B. and Elizabeth L. Shattuck Memorial Trust], from which we can typically get $30,000 to $55,000 per year for projects.”
The Old Town House exhibitions also represent how Johnston expanded the Historical Commission’s purview beyond the preservation and protection of Marblehead’s history.
“He has seen that that essential work is done, but he’s also built a really, really strong team of people,” Peterson said. “He has this farsighted vision of what could be done and what should be done.”
She characterized his leadership style as thoughtful, diplomatic and inclusive.
“He’s a very gentlemanly person in the best sense of the way,” Peterson said. “Whenever we’ve talked about doing things, he thinks, ‘How would this affect others?'”
Several projects are ongoing, including the early stages of building an archive center. Associate Historical Commission member Pat Franklin is making serious progress on historic preservation surveys, writing grant applications every year for Massachusetts Historical Commission matching grants as well as supervising the work.
“We created a professionally done master plan to survey the entire town’s properties. Up until then, only the Historic District had been surveyed,” Johnston said. “The master plan (available at marbleheadhistory.org) has a 10-plus-year plan to survey the entire town, one neighborhood at a time.”
He added, “Pat’s work has Marblehead well ahead of most towns in the commonwealth.”
‘Story after story’
In collaboration with former town administrator John McGinn, he also helped hang high-resolution copies of historic letters from President George Washington, Vice President Elbridge Gerry, Paul Revere and John Hancock to the people of Marblehead in the Select Board Room.
“One of the recent things he did was bring credit-card payments to the Abbot Hall gift shop,” said Historical Commission member David Krathwohl. “For a long, long time, it was a cash kind of thing.”
Krathwohl, who worked on Mapping Marblehead, said one of Johnston’s strengths is in articulating visions behind projects.
“It’s been a real pleasure working with him,” said Krathwohl. “He is an outstanding manager of both people and projects.”
As much praise as he got for thinking ahead, Johnston chuckled as he explained how he came to serve on the Historical Commission.
“If I could give one piece of advice: Don’t retire without a plan in place,” he said. “It’s a bad idea to retire without a plan.”
Johnston joined the Historical Commission after retiring from General Electric in the early 2000s.
“My background was not as a historian,” Johnston said. “I was an engineer and systems manager.”
But his engineering background has proven useful and helpful. He also showered praise on the late Wayne Butler, who died at 91 on Oct. 23. He became enamored by Marblehead history by listening and watching Butler.
“He just took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the mechanics of historical organization and the mechanics of cataloging when you have a collection as we do,” said Johnston. “He just gave me story after story.”