Nancy Fike has a quick answer about what's been the most difficult part of her long tenure with the McHenry County Historical Society.
"Right now," said Fike, who's about to retire from the post of administrator after 40 years with the organization, including nine as a volunteer. "It's so bittersweet because I still enjoy doing it. But you've got to know when to fold. I don't want to sit in a corner with people saying, 'There's a doddering old dear, just hang a tag on her.'"
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Fike, who lives in McHenry, celebrated her 70th birthday on Aug. 6 and is training her replacement, Kurt Begalka, before she walks away for good at the end of the month.
A native of McHenry County, Fike first worked as a teacher as far away as California and Rhode Island before circling back to the old Huntley Junior High School. After starting as a volunteer for the historical society in the early 1970s, Fike was hired as curator in 1981 -- with duties that included chasing away squirrels, bats and pigeons -- and then promoted to administrator in 1986. "I was still the only hiree," she said. "It didn't mean a whole lot of difference than a change in name."
Back then, it was just Fike and founder Dorothy McEachron, who has since passed away, and three or four volunteers. Now, there are three staff members and about 300 volunteers, with an annual budget of $252,000, Fike said.
The point of historical preservation is not to mummify history, but to make it a pulsating part of life, Fike said.
For example, an 1885 town hall in Seneca Township restored by the historical society is the site of yearly dramatic historic interpretations of public issues such as property rights and prostitution, she said. An 1867 limestone one-room school house north of Marengo can be visited while it's being restored, while a 1898 church in Riley Township is the site of events like singalongs, she added.
"Just look in our backyard because there are treasures galore," she said.
Fike spearheaded the creation of the McHenry County Joint Council of Historic Groups, made up of about 20 historical organizations, said Gloria Mack, a member of the McHenry County historic preservation commission.
"Nancy is just so full of good ideas. She's not afraid to bring them up, she just has such a wonderful, wonderful idea bank," Mack said. "She's a great lady, and probably the most humble person I've ever met."
New leadership will be good for the historical society, said Fike, who's considering learning to play the piano and do some horseback riding along the Oregon Trail after she retires. She and her husband, Steve, also plan to spend more time with their daughter in California.
"I'm so old-fashioned. I don't use social networking, I barely use my cellphone. I realize where you have to go with communication, and I'm personally not committed to go there."
An open house to honor Fike's service is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum, 6422 Main St., Union. For details, visit mchsonline.org or call (815) 923-2267.