Dorothy Dahlgren, executive director of the Museum of North Idaho, poses by one of the exhibits on Friday. Dahlgren is retiring after leading the museum since 1982.
BILL BULEY/Press

By Elena Johnson
| August 1, 2020 1:06 AM

When Executive Director Dorothy Dahlgren was first hired at the Museum of North Idaho, the only job description she received was “make it your own.”

Thirty-eight years later, she feels it’s time that somebody else made it their own.

The museum has put out a national call for a replacement, although there is no expectation to fill the position until the fall.

“We don’t want to rush things,” said Julie Gibbs, president of the museum’s board of trustees. “We want to make sure that it’s a good fit both for the candidate as well as for the museum.”

The timing would also allow the new director time to “get on their feet” during the slow months, as the museum closes from Nov. 1 to March 31, Gibbs said.

The newcomer will have to transition the museum not only to new leadership, but also to its new home. The museum is restoring the recently purchased J.C. White House on the edge of McEuen Park in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

“This is quite a transition to a new museum,” said Gibbs. “We’ll be looking for someone … to become part of the community and understand what the community wants … and understand how the museum can best serve [it].”

Dahlgren has been the executive director in deed, if not in name, since 1982, three years after moving from the old powder magazine on North Idaho College’s campus to a high-visibility building on Northwest Boulevard at the fringe of City Park.

Hired straight out of her degree in museology and history at the University of Idaho, she became the museum’s only paid employee, as well as its first hire with any background in museum studies. She was 24.

The initial gig was for a curator, although Dahlgren says the position was really “that of a director” already. It paid a very undirectorly $5 an hour.

“When you’re that age you just take stuff on and you just do it,” she said.

She has since helped the museum grow into a multifaceted community institution.

In addition to standard duties such as monitoring the museum’s artifact and photo collections, directing volunteers and curating an annual exhibit, Dahlgren has also helped establish the Museum of North Idaho as a major publisher.

“She really started the Museum of North Idaho Press back in the 1990s. And over the years the museum has become the largest publisher of regional history books in the Northwest,” said Gibbs.

“She was a big help to me in doing my book on the history of Coeur d’Alene, because she knew all the resources,” said Robert Singletary, whose book “Coeur d’Alene: Beautiful and Progressive” was published last October.

“It would probably take two people to do her job today with the kind of things that she’s done,” he said. “I really don’t think I’ve seen anyone that’s as dedicated to her job as Dorothy.”

Singletary has worked with Dahlgren for 30 years, as an outsider, longtime board member, and, since 2012, as program and marketing director. He knows her better than most.

“Dorothy has played a major role in the history of this community in keeping this museum alive and well,” he said.

And she’s done it with fiscal skill, he said.

“We have never been in the red,” Singletary said. “She is very good with figures … [she really] has kept the museum going.”

Singletary and Gibbs also credit Dahlgren’s talent for bringing in large numbers of dedicated volunteers to help run the museum, which has a small staff.

“She has dedicated her entire career to the museum and it’s a level of dedication I think to be unparalleled,” said Gibbs. “She puts her heart and soul into the museum.”

So after nearly four decades, what will the museum do without her?

“We’ve all thought about that,” Singletary said with a laugh, “but time does change. We’re going to have to make some adjustments and some of those adjustments may be good for us.”

Dahlgren plans to offer assistance to the new hire, but is sensitive to helping them “feel like it’s their museum and their job,” she said.

Dahlgren has no firm plans for retirement yet and likes to let life unfold as it will.

She does have some friendly advice for the future newcomer, however:

“Ask for input and help … This community wants to help and I hope the new director will ask them to be part of this wonderful organization as it continues to ‘Move History Forward.’”