A Simple Gesture: Remembering a museum volunteer

Fred Starobin, former museum volunteer.

The other day, my mail included a card-sized letter. It was addressed simply to "Smithsonian Institute [sic]/American History Museum," and, for some unidentifiable reason, had my mail routing code marked on it in an unknown (and untraceable) person's handwriting.

Inside was a note card containing a check and a brief message: "This donation is in memory of Fred Starobin, a long-term volunteer at the Museum."

The name was not familiar to anyone within our Division of Work and Industry, so the next and most obvious stop was Amy Lemon, who coordinates the Behind-the-Scenes volunteers for the Smithsonian. Amy checked her records as far back as 2002, but a Fred Starobin was nowhere to be found. She wondered if he might have been a docent, a guide that leads tours of visitors through specific exhibits. But docent coordinator Andrea Lowther drew another blank: no sign of Fred in the docent roster.

Was it possible that the donors had sent their check to the wrong place? A day or two later, a follow-up email from Amy provided the answer: Fred had been a volunteer on Mondays for our Mall information desk. I called his supervisor Mike Rubin, who remembered Fred well. Coincidentally, we spoke on a Monday afternoon, so Mike was able to send me downstairs to the information desk to speak with volunteers Ellen and Mary, who had worked with Fred in the past.

Fred must have really enjoyed helping visitors work their way through the National Museum of American History, for he did it for 15 years beginning in November 1994. His only gap was when we were closed for renovations from September 2006 to Thanksgiving 2008. During his "sabbatical," he staffed the information desks at the National Museum of Natural History next door.

Fred worked at our information desk until just a few weeks before he died in April 2011. His desk-mates remember him fondly as a terrific storyteller, a World War II veteran, an engineer, and a patent attorney in D.C. before retiring and coming to work for the Smithsonian. They mentioned his obituary in the Washington Post, which said that "Contributions may be made to Smithsonian Institute-American History Museum." There was the final clue to the mysterious check in the mail.

Surveys indicate that before they come to Washington to see the Smithsonian, many first-time visitors think the Institution is all in one building and that they can see everything in one day. It can be bewildering to learn that there are over a dozen Smithsonian museums within walking distance, and to determine how best to see displays of interest within a visitor's available timeframe.

Volunteers like Fred are the Smithsonian's frontline representatives—the first people that our millions of visitors see and talk with when they enter the doors of the museum. These volunteers answer questions, dispense maps and guidebooks, and, most importantly, provide our visitors with that all-important first impression of the world's largest museum complex. They're trained to provide information not only about the museums they serve, but also other Smithsonian buildings and even the surrounding neighborhood. They do all of this cheerfully, on weekdays and weekends, 364 days per year.

Our thanks go both to Fred for his many years of public service, and to his relatives for their generosity in his memory.

Paul F. Johnston is Curator for the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.