Former Ontario County Historical Society executive director discusses what it’s like to retire, marry your lifelong sweetheart and make the most of each day during a pandemic.
By Melody Burri
Q: What were your most fulfilling career accomplishments at OCHS? It was a career accomplishment to serve as the executive director of the Historical Society for 25 years. Some years were easier than others, but I truly feel that the time I spent redeveloping this century-old not-for-profit was some of my most fulfilling career work. The friendships I made will stay with me forever.”
During this time, the team at the Historical Society experienced just about everything imaginable, and it was enough to bond us as a team. But as an organization, I knew we needed an underlying raison d’etre to build on. So we decided that total museum integration into the digital age would be our purpose. Lofty? Yes, for 1995. But I was convinced that this technology shift was real and here to stay. So staff and volunteers undertook the job of entering the information on the museum’s vast collections into a database.
We created www.ochs.org and eventually signed up for platforms like Facebook and YouTube. The public caught on quickly. Historians and those interested in our local history are now able to access information from the museum’s archives to do some very significant research on the history of western New York state.
The museum’s transformation garnered the attention of granting agencies, and funded projects followed. I was recognized for this achievement when I was awarded the Anne Ackerson Innovation in Leadership Award by the Museum Association of New York in 2020. Some say that it prepared the Historical Society for the future. I believe that it was critical to the survival of the Historical Society as it existed in 1995.
Q: How has your own life changed since retiring? The Historical Society and I planned my transition into retirement and their transition to a new director for two years. When the day came for me to hand my keys over, my life changed in ways I knew it would and in ways I hadn’t imagined.
The removal of the burden of responsibility for an organization, and the fact that my time would be my own, was expected. And because my 30-year sweetheart, Vanessa Waters, also retired at the same time, we expected to spend more time together doing things we want to do.
In fact, we got married at a ceremony here at ‘Three Greys,’ our place in Cheshire.
But in retrospect, who could have predicted the whole pandemic social behavior shift? I do miss all my friends at the Historical Museum. And many cool things that Vanessa and I planned were canceled, so we became homebodies and picked up some new interests. It wasn’t what we planned, but sometimes in the stream of life it’s better to be the water and not the rock.
Q: What hobbies and passions are you pursuing in your new-found spare time? Vanessa and I have always enjoyed traveling, especially with our Arabian horses. The pandemic has limited our international horse travel, but we have been on a couple of road trips outside the state and our love of the Finger Lakes offers many day trip options. We are happily retired and enjoying our life here in Cheshire [New York]. I have taken up gardening, home canning and landscaping. I really like to cook in the winter, so we invested in a kitchen renovation last year. I also became an apprentice winemaker and was fortunate to be offered involvement in a small wine group. As time ticks on, I hope to continue developing this and other important retirement skills.
Q: What part of Ontario County’s local history fascinates you most? My favorite time period is when Canandaigua became a city in the early 1900s.
It was a spectacular place to be, with a lot of hotels, restaurants and businesses. The community was very active commercially and agriculturally — it was working as a region should work. And there were so many colorful personalities in business and government. Gov. William Sulzer was impeached at that time, and there was a police chief in Canandaigua who kind of ran the town. That’s what history is — it’s all about the people.
Q: What advice would you give to others entering and looking to thrive in retirement? Be flexible, especially if you retire during a pandemic. Have a purpose. Also, continue to promote personal health by maintaining an active lifestyle.