Two “All-American” Docents Celebrate Four Decades of Service to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

August 14, 2007

As part of its annual docent awards ceremony Sept. 17, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will pay special tribute to Mary Dickson Shryock of Bethesda, Md., and Marilyn Gaston of Fairfax, Va., for reaching milestones in their many years of volunteer service with the museum.

One fall day in September of 1967, Shryock walked into a Smithsonian docents recruiting session and embarked on a volunteering adventure that would change her life for the next 40 years. Five years later, Gaston did the same. Now, these two docents are celebrating 40 and 35 years of volunteer service, respectively, at the museum. Shyrock and Gaston continue to guide visitors while the museum is closed for renovations in the “Treasure’s of American History” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Mary Dickson Shryock

With 40 years of experience under her belt, Shryock, known as “Deeks,” is the longest-serving docent ever at the museum and is tied with a volunteer at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as the longest-serving Smithsonian docent. Reflecting on the important role of volunteering in her parents’ lives, she said, “I guess I was born with the urge to volunteer.”

As a college student at Virginia’s William and Mary College, Shryock was surrounded by history on the streets of colonial Williamsburg. Years later, she was one of the eager volunteers “from off the street” who joined representatives from the Smithsonian Associates (the membership, cultural and educational arm of the Smithsonian) and the Junior League of Washington (a women’s group founded in 1912 to support voluntarism) at an informational session in 1967. At the time, the museum—then called the National Museum of History and Technology—was only three years old and just beginning to develop its volunteer program, with seed funding from the Junior League.

Shryock, who gives tours and served as chairman of the docent board from 1971 to 1972, has volunteered throughout the museum and says that the constant opportunities to learn and kindle relationships with the other volunteers at the museum have enriched her life. Prior to the museum’s closing for renovation in 2006, Shryock worked in the “First Ladies” exhibition for approximately eight years and was inspired to begin reading first ladies biographies on a regular basis. Her experience with other, more recent exhibitions, such as “The Price of Freedom” and “America on the Move,” has allowed Shryock to observe the transformation and modernization of the museum.

These recent exhibitions, which capture the progression of American military and transportation history into the current era, vary dramatically from the emphasis on Colonial history that marked the museum in 1967. She still remembers escorting a school tour through an old exhibition on homely objects from Colonial America. When she prompted the students to guess what a Joiner was, she recalls how one young man asserted with great confidence that a Joiner “must have been a preacher that married people!”

Shryock moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1950 after living in St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Cleveland during her youth while her father was employed by the B&O railroad. Shryock has two children and four grandchildren, all of whom live in Virginia.

Marilyn Gaston

The feeling of community is exactly what Marilyn Gaston, a biologist for the National Cancer Institute, describes as the driving force behind her 35-year commitment to the museum. In 1972, she learned about the volunteering opportunities with the National Museum of History and Technology in a public service announcement on the radio. Ever since then, Gaston has been coming into Washington the third Saturday of every month to volunteer, guiding tourists and special guests through the highlights of the museum’s many exhibitions.

For many years now, she has shared one Saturday of each month with virtually the same group of people. Originally, the additional programming for weekend volunteers was very limited, but throughout her time with the museum, Gaston has watched the docent program grow to become more inclusive of weekend volunteers. She now enjoys the benefits that come with the job, such as educational field trips, and calls it “one of the great volunteer jobs in Washington.” Not only does she connect with American history but also with one of the world’s most respected museums.

Gaston’s passion for volunteering at the museum extends beyond just the people, however. It is fitting that Gaston’s favorite artifact at the museum is the 193-year-old Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that is at the center of the museum’s renovation project. Through objects like this, and the stories they represent, Gaston says the museum teaches her about “the connectedness between the past and the present,” a most valuable lesson she says she will celebrate as she marks this major milestone in her Smithsonian service.

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Gaston now lives in Fairfax, Va., and has two sisters in the area. She also volunteers annually at the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum is closed for major renovations and will re-open in summer 2008. For information about the museum, please visit http://americanhistory.si.edu or call Smithsonian Information at (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).