By BRADEN LAMMERS
It started more than 30 years ago as a volunteer effort. Eventually, it developed into a second career, which has come to its official end.
Yvonne Knight retired as the director and curator of the Howard Steamboat Museum and a public reception honoring Knight will be held from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, at the museum in Jeffersonville.
Even though she is retiring, Knight won’t be walking away completely.
“I’m not going to give up entirely,” she said. “There’s some things I’d like to see completed.”
She added that she will continue to volunteer at the steamboat museum, which is how she got started back in 1979.
From volunteer to leader
Knight began working as a volunteer giving tours at the steamboat museum before she would go to work as a second-shift nurse.
It was similar to a role she had before she and her husband moved to Jeffersonville when they lived in Chicago, where she volunteered with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
In looking for something to do with her free time, she found the steamboat museum.
“I had my mornings free and I always liked to do something completely different from nursing,” she said. “This kind of thing just interested me. I saw a place that maybe needed some help, not just in tours, but in many other areas. I just kept coming, and I got more and more involved.”
Knight officially became administrator of the museum in 1991. Her last job in nursing was in 1997 after which the museum became her second full-time career.
But what kept Knight coming back year after year was what still connects her to the museum.
“It’s the people,” she said. “It’s always the people.”
History in faces
Many of the museum’s visitors have their own family histories tied to the museum.
For Knight, one of the things she relished was having known some of the family members that lived in the house.
“To get those first-hand stories ... was just amazing,” she said. “So, I did my best to share that with whoever came in.”
It was the stories of those people, and those connected to them that really piqued Knight’s interest.
“When I walked in this door I didn’t know a paddlewheel from a pilot wheel,” she said. “I hated history in high school, but this is living history. History enriches our lives. It gives us something to reflect back on that we can connect to.”
That personal connection, and an affinity for steamboats, is what hooked Knight’s successor.
Keith Norrington, who began volunteering at the Howard Steamboat Museum in 1968 when he was 14, will take over the day-to-day operations from Knight as the museum’s director and curator.
“I want to retain what I felt as a child when I came here the first time, that this is the home of the Howards and you are a guest in their home,” Norrington said. “And also the feeling that the museum doesn’t belong to those of us that are entrusted as its daily caretakers, that it belongs to the community. It amazes me ... that people come in and say, ‘I’ve lived in Jeffersonville all my life and driven by here every day, but this is the first time I have set foot in the house.’”
He added that the museum would not be where it is had it not been for Knight.
“Yvonne is very modest about all she has done here,” he said. “I have always said the doors have remained open because of her dedication. Not many people would’ve done what she’s done to keep the museum going. I’m really honored to be step into her shoes.”
Norrington said her outreach efforts like the museum’s newsletter and developing a gift shop in the former home helped to bring more attention to the museum.
A number of other events started under Knight’s tenure including the Fall into Art Festival, an architecture camp for kids, a relaunch of the annual Chautauqua Festival and a fall wine tasting event that serves as a fundraiser for the museum.
Those events served as a way to reach a broader audience.
“Everything we do can’t, and doesn’t, involve steamboats,” Norrington said. “It really makes it unique that we can bring in things like Victorian architecture [to people]. Yvonne is responsible for a lot of that.”
Norrington said he will continue many of the events that have become traditions at the steamboat museum under Knight’s leadership. He would also like to add events like Pilot House Pals, a reading group that would serve as an educational effort for young children, and a golf scramble to benefit the museum he is looking to host along with Jeffboat and American Commercial Lines, Inc.
He explained that finding those other things that draw people in, whether it be special events, the home’s architecture, furnishings or, of course, steamboats, was and is important to keeping the museum operating.
But he added it’s not likely Knight will take any credit for keeping the museum afloat.
“She’ll tell you, ‘oh, somebody would have done it,’” Norrington said. “Well, who?”
“I’m glad I’m in the position now that she’s retiring I can continue it,” he added.
And Norrington was right.
When asked about her legacy, Knight said, “I just kept it going.”
Knight said both she and Norrington are dedicated to the idea of why this museum was started in the first place. She said Capt. Jim Howard’s vision was that generations to come could visit his home and learn about the history of steamboating.
But the community impact stretches beyond the museum’s walls.
“It’s a great facility, but keeping that history in mind, that history that enriches us across the street [at Jeffboat] is still going on,” Knight said. “What James Howard started there in 1834, we still have a vibrant boat business over there. It has really sustained our community.”
Knight said the biggest change over the years has been the steady growth in the museum’s board and the increased involvement from the community.
“I think we’ve done a lot of good things in the last 20 years,” she said.