Six years ago, the Oregon Historical Society was in trouble. Money had dried up. Visitors stopped coming. Fair weather friends started referring to it as the Portland Historical Society. Then Kerry Tymchuk showed up.
Unlike his predecessor executive directors who were steeped in professional historical credentials, Tymchuk arrived with a bulging rolodex of Oregonians who knew him because of his role as Oregon staff director for former Senator Gordon Smith. Gregarious and personable, Tymchuk cultivated contacts by being curious about everything and responding to requests with gusto.
One of the cards in his rolodex belonged to Melvin “Pete" Mark, a successful real estate developer and, it turns out, a super collector of historical artifacts. Shortly after Tymchuk was hired at OHS, Mark called to say he was ready to share his collection. “He said he trusted me,” Tymchuk recalls. “The rest is, well, history."
Mark’s personal collection has anchored five blockbuster exhibits at OHS, including the current one titled “High Hopes: The Journey of John F. Kennedy” that celebrates the 100th centennial of JFK's birth in 1917. Other exhibits have featured Lincoln memorabilia, opened “Windows of America,” reminded us of the savagery and bravery of World War II and shown us the “Blueprints of Democracy” from the Magna Carta to the US Constitution.
The Oregon Historical Society has become relevant again, and it may never have been as much fun. The current JFK exhibit includes an interactive and eerily timely game that pits the United States against Russia. The exhibit also features the original condolence note JFK wrote to the widow of Medgar Evers, which contained a typo, and the TV camera that captured Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination.
With pioneer roots, Tymchuk earned his BA degree in speech and history and his law degree from Willamette University. For him, history is not about sterile facts and dates; it is all about stories. To quote his favorite historian David McCullough, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
That’s probably why Tymchuk wants people to “hold history” in their hands. There is something about holding a historical treasure that makes history seem alive, not dead. Of course, when people hold history, they also can drop it, as happened when an admirer accidentally dropped the Portland Penny, which was used in the famous coin flip to decide the city’s name. After frantic searching, the penny was rescued from under a nearby chair. “I haven’t let anyone hold it since,” Tymchuk says.
Tymchuk leveraged his personal and political connections to bail out OHS. Most historical societies are state agencies and receive as much as 70 percent of their funding from public appropriations. OHA is a non-profit that gets barely 10 percent of its funding from the state. The executive director has to hustle. No one is better at it than Tymchuk.
Under his tenure, OHS is now financially stable, helped by Multnomah County voter approval by a 70 percent majority to continue an operating levy. Visitor numbers are up, thanks to a continuing cavalcade of new exhibits, including draws such as Marcus Mariota’s Heisman trophy, the Portland Timbers’ MLS Championship Cup, the Oregon historical roots of comic books and a show-and-tell of Oregon’s connection to rock and roll.
An improved balance sheet has enabled OHS to offer free admission for school tours. It even helps out with school buses for districts that can’t afford to transport kids to OHS. Tymchuk has made sure OHS travels, too. He has forged a partnership with Teddy Roosevelt impersonator Joe Wiegand to spend a week in Oregon eery year touring the state in the truest form of “living history.” “Joe is so good that adults walk away actually thinking they were talking to Teddy Roosevelt,” Tymchuk says.
A growing reputation has attracted major speakers including Tymchuk idol McCullough and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Expect an announcement soon about another headliner who will appear in connection with the JFK exhibit.
Tymchuk left CFM to become interim executive director at OHS. Tymchuk joined CFM after Smith was defeated for re-election in 2008. Before that, he worked in Washington, DC as a top aide to Senator Bob Dole and an advisor to Elizabeth Dole. He assisted Dole in writing two books about political humor and later co-wrote “One Tough Mother,” the autobiography of Columbia Sportswear’s Gert Boyle, and “No Small Potatoes,” the autobiography of the late Al Reser, founder of Reser’s Foods. He recently assisted former Oregon Senator Mae Yih on her autobiography, “East Meets West.”
Tymchuk is a sought-after emcee, speaker and speechwriter. He also has a great on-air persona and encyclopedic recall of events and names, which accounts for why he was four-time champion on the TV game show “Jeopardy.”
Kerry is more than just a history buff. He has played a leadership role for many years in the Oregon Special Olympics, which he calls his “cause of the heart,”
Smith may have summed up Tymchuk best. “Kerry Tymchuk knows Oregon better than anyone I’ve ever known, its history and culture, its people and politics, its ways and workings. He’s at home among Pendleton wheat farms, coastal fishermen, Roseburg loggers and in Portland boardrooms. He is a friend to all and anywhere I went in the four corners of the state during my 12 years as a senator, Oregonians of all political parties thank me for the service of Kerry Tymchuk."