Oldham County Day
Oldham County History Center’s
Theiss to be honored
She will preside over the
Oldham County Day parade, events
July 2018 Cover
LA GRANGE, Ky. (July 2018) – As executive director of the Oldham County History Center, Nancy Stearns Theiss embodies this year’s Oldham County Day theme, “Keeping History Alive,” as no one else can. Her efforts to promote and enhance the History Center, as well as the community and the people in it, have earned her a spot among the elite few who have been chosen as grand marshal of the Oldham County Day parade.
Theiss is a native of Oldham County, the daughter of the late “Doc” Stearns, a well-known veterinarian in the county for many years. From an early age, Theiss had a special love for the natural world around her, having grown up on a farm.
In 1954, the family moved to a farm on Hwy. 53, just outside of La Grange. It backed up to the Kentucky State Penitentiary, where her father put in many long hours of veterinary service.
It was here at The Pond (the farm had many springs and nice ponds, one in particular) that family and friends would gather for celebrations such as the Fourth of July. There were pig roasts and fireworks, lots of people and always a loving family close by.
With such an upbringing, it is only natural that Theiss would carve out a career in the field of natural sciences. She has used this experience in various ways over the last decade since assuming the role of executive director of the Oldham County History Center.
Oldham County Day
• Hours: 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Saturday, July 21, around the Oldham County Courthouse Square
• Parade: 10 a.m.
• Grand Marshal Luncheon: Noon Tuesday, July 17, at the John Black Community Center in Buckner, Ky. Tickets $15 adults; $10 children 12-under. Call (502) 222-1731
“My background is in biology and environmental education. I never thought about working at a History Center as a career move,” said Theiss. “When I took this job, I wanted to be closer to home to help take care of my mother (Winn), who at the time was very sick and has since passed.”
Theiss had worked at several non-profits that operated very similarly to the History Center. “As soon as I began working at the History Center, I realized I had a chance to use history to engage people in their environment. By learning about others and the places where “history” happens, you can engage people in a more personal way with the place they live.”
For her, “I got a chance to interact and interview people through oral histories and my writing, and learn about my place where I grew up. It has been extremely beneficial because as I listen to others, I learn how to live my life each day. I think that is the best part of my job at the History Center.”
She continued by saying, “My hope is that others can experience Oldham County the same way – by learning about those people and places in our past who make the world a better place, which in turn will make us all take better care of ourselves and where we live.”
Theiss will lead off the 48th annual Oldham County Day parade at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 21. The parade route begins at La Grange Elementary school. Following Theiss will be a float containing members of the Living Treasures program, a project she instituted at the Oldham County History Center.
Theiss will also be honored on Tuesday, July 17, at a noon luncheon at the John Black Community Center. The luncheon is open to the public, and the cost is $15 per ticket.
The Project Guild of La Grange is responsible for putting on Oldham County Day and choosing a grand marshal. Vice President and Chairman of Oldham County Day, Lauren Kunce, said the Guild takes nominees from the public, looking for people who are “involved in our community. Those individuals are worthy of being grand marshal.”
Photo by Helen E. McKinney
Nancy Theiss is pictured on the Oldham County Historical Society campus in front of the new Dahlgren Pioneer Barn that was recently constructed to hold various events.
This year, the Guild looked for someone who would tie into Judge-Executive David Voegele’s planned unveiling of the Col. William Oldham statue. “We were looking for someone with an historical background. Nancy is always so involved in the community. We thought she would be the perfect fit. One of the ladies in our group nominated her and it was overwhelmingly accepted.”
But Theiss said she has never felt like she was really giving back to the community, but rather, “the community gives to me each day. I have chosen career paths that I like, which have made it possible for me to receive a lot of joy and interaction with people and the environment where I live. It motivates me to be positive and deepens my sense of belonging to the community around me.”
Many in the community who know Theiss echo the sentiments of Ellie Troutman, Oldham County History Center board member and a business owner in La Grange.
“Nancy gives history a voice. She’s a strong leader with excellent people skills.”
After graduating from high school, like many young adults, Theiss thought that Oldham County “was the last place I wanted to settle,” she said. But over the years, she has come to “applaud the fact that so many people support and make it a better place to live.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Louisville in 1974 and her master’s degree from Murray State University in 1978. After graduating from Murray State, Theiss held a position as a state consultant in Environmental Education until 1982 with the Kentucky Department of Education.
From 1989 to 1993 she worked as director of the Louisville Nature Center. After leaving that position, she worked until 1998 as Director of Information & Education for the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources. Theiss next worked as associate professor for the University of Louisville from 2002 to 2003. She then took her current job with the Oldham County History Center.
“Nancy promotes a very positive work environment, giving those that work with her the chance to take on projects and responsibilities that make the best uses of their skills,” said Office Manager Pam Fields, who has worked with Theiss over the last eight years.
Photo courtesy of Curt Edwards
Photo from the 2017 Oldham County Day Parade.
“Nancy has been the biggest promoter of Oldham County history since taking the position of executive director. She loves Oldham County and what it has to offer,” Fields said. “She grew up here, has lived here all her life and is excited to share what she knows and what she has learned as director with those that want to know more about the county.”
Theiss has spent many hours putting pen to paper, recording voices from the past. Since 2007, she has interviewed and transcribed oral histories for the Living Treasures program. She produces a written form of these oral histories once a month for the Oldham Era.
She has written several books as well: “Oldham County: Life at the River’s Edge,” and “A Place in the Lodge: Dr. Rob Morris, Freemasonry and the Order of the Eastern Star.” Theiss is well-known for her former Louisville Courier-Journal column, “The World Beneath Your Feet.”
She is very community oriented and has been a member of the Conservation Board, involved with the Rotary Club and a board member for the Limestone Land Trust.
“As a native of Oldham County, the community of people has not really changed over the years. The population has gotten larger but, by and large, most people are the same – they want to live in a safe and healthy place, interact in positive ways with their families and neighbors,” she said.
“Obviously, before the interstate, the county I grew up in was more rural and similar to outlying rural counties, like Trimble and Henry County still are today. There is a “sense” of place in rural areas that is lost when people are not raised in the day-to-day life of raising livestock and growing crops. However, if people understand the history of the places where they live, they can capture that connection to the land.”
It’s important to her to “honor the sacrifices of the enslaved laborers and women and men who fought for a democracy in antebellum America to end slavery and fight for the civil rights of women and freedom seekers. The realization that people put themselves in such jeopardy both as conductors and freedom seekers, and that those sacrifices happened right here, in the place where I live, on the corridor of the Underground Railroad, makes our county very special.”
In 2016 the Oldham County History Center earned two designations on the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. One was for the Henry Bibb Escapes and Gatewood Plantation site in Trimble County. This site is where former slave and Freedom Seeker Henry Bibb was living before escaping to Canada and freedom. This site is an ongoing project for the History Center and several public archaeological digs are conducted there annually.
The second designation was for the holdings in the J.C. Barnett Library & Archives. The archives contain a rich collection of materials pertaining to slavery such as runaway ads, documents detailing the buying and selling of slaves, and early estate inventories listing slaves by first name only.
Fields sites these designations as one of Theiss’ greatest accomplishments while at the History Center. “She also had the vision for the renovation of the
Oldham County History Center and was able to share that vision with the board of directors, and see that it was carried through to completion.”
One of Theiss’ largest projects to date as executive director of the Oldham County History Center has been overseeing a $2 million renovation of the History Center campus in La Grange. Begun in August 2014, the project has provided a much-needed overhaul of the Peyton Samuel Head Family Museum, as well as the entire campus. Two of the buildings on the campus date to 1840. The third, a chapel where Rob Morris (founder of the Order of the Eastern Star) attended services, dates to 1880.
“We are now on the tail end of our campus renovation,” said Theiss. “Currently, we are raising funds for our Road Warrior Statute. This statue is of Dr. Bruce Heilman, a World War II veteran and native of Oldham County who started riding his Harley Davidson “Marine” issue motorcycle when he turned 86 across the United States to bring attention to Gold Star families and the sacrifices of our World War II veterans.”
In addition to overseeing the daily programs, events and tours that come through town, a large portion of Theiss’ job is dedicated to fundraising to keep the doors of the History Center open to the public. The History Center is a 501-c3 non-profit funded from donations, membership dues, grants and an annual Gala that provides operational expenses.
Theiss said she thought she was chosen as grand marshal because of “the work I do at the History Center. It honors not only me but all of the people, the Board of Directors, members and numerous volunteers who have worked the last four years on our campus renovation effort.”
Membership totals more than 500 individuals. These members include the Antique Iron Club, History Hound families, volunteers that serve on the Board of Directors, Gala committee, landscaping and garden projects, cemetery research and those who have participated in the Living Treasures Program and Veterans Oral History Project, as well as many members from out of state.
She married Jim Theiss in 1977, and they have two children, J.D. Theiss and Jessie Gray, and two grandchildren, Milo and Lida.
“As cliche as it sounds, I can’t imagine a better mother,” said Theiss’ daughter, Jessie Gray, a teacher at La Grange Elementary School. “Mom always exposed us to everything – people, places and experiences. I felt like growing up we had a very broad view of life. We grew up understanding and valuing the diversity of life in addition to a respect and love for the Earth. We also were very loved and supported but taught independence at an early age.”
Gray thinks her mother was chosen as grand marshal because of “her love and work for our community, and the campus renovation nearing completion shows that. The History Center campus does a good job of incorporating all of our county’s history from our establishment as a county to the telling of the stories of the people from our area. It is really the crown jewel of La Grange.”
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