Kurt Begalka, inside the McHenry County Historical Society's storage area. (Chris Linden photo)

Know Your Neighbors: Kurt Begalka

For more than 30 years, this former reporter has witnessed McHenry County history unfold. Now in a new role, he’s protecting the stories of our past.

Kurt Begalka, inside the McHenry County Historical Society's storage area. (Chris Linden photo)
Kurt Begalka, inside the McHenry County Historical Society’s storage area. (Chris Linden photo)

Crystal Lake native Kurt Begalka spent 30 years working as a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist, covering the people, places and events of McHenry County. Two years ago, he was hired to replace Nancy Fike, who retired after three decades as administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society & Museum. He now lives in Harvard.

Describe your transition from journalism to the nonprofit world.

In the nonprofit world, things sometimes take a little longer to get done. You don’t have the same time, manpower and resources available to you. You have to frame a plan, develop it and chip away at it. In one sense, it’s a lot like journalism. You’re juggling several balls at once, and you never really get caught up. In my new job, one minute I’m working with volunteers, then I’m fixing a mechanical problem or dealing with a paperwork issue. Nancy told me I would never get bored here, and that’s for sure. I’ve been busy getting the word out about the historical society. Not everyone knows about us. I got into journalism to make a difference and I’m still able to do that here, just in a different way.

What’s significant about the 50th anniversary?

For an organization to be around 50 years is quite an accomplishment. It’s due to the outstanding commitment by many dedicated volunteers and staff, including exhibit curator Kira Halvey, office manager Nancy Roozée and our board, including president Bob Frenz and vice president Molly Walsh. Nancy Fike has been a mentor for me, and I hope to continue to build on this organization’s legacy.

Last year, we celebrated the golden anniversary with many new events, such as an antique appraisal, members’ exhibit, 1860 baseball game, an antique car show and a signature dinner. We wanted to get people interacting with history and we were looking for new and creative outlets to get people inspired. We have 300 volunteers and we’re always looking for more to help process donated items, serve as docents or even staff the front desk.

What makes the historical society special?

The museum is a catalyst to draw people here. We have a research library, biographical files, old county history books, picture files and obituaries for people who are doing genealogy projects. One way we attract guests is by putting rotating exhibits in the community at various locations such as libraries, and the Woodstock Opera House. These typically include clothing, pictures and other artifacts. Another way of getting people back to the museum is through special events, such as our Sampler Series lectures. In addition, we host a Heritage Fair in July and a Cider Fest in October.

Why should people care about their county’s history?

Since I’ve been here, many historic buildings have either been torn down or threatened to be razed, starting with the Mineola Hotel in Fox Lake, which was added by Landmarks Illinois to its list of the state’s 10 most endangered buildings. We’ve also worked to save Harmony School in Coral Township, the Sawyer-Kelley Mill in Huntley, and Camp Algonquin in Algonquin Township. You win some, you lose some. But what you try to do is raise public consciousness and get a process in place to protect these buildings.

What is the Quilted Barn Program?

The Quilted Barn Program, which started in 2000, combines the tradition of quilt designing with the durability of American barns. The program involves selecting a quilt pattern and painting it onto two 4-by-8 plywood sheets, creating an 8-foot-square quilt painting. It then is attached to a barn in a place that is easily visible from the road. The program has created a barn trail for people who love traveling the country, looking for the barns and quilts. They can be quilters, barn preservationists or artists. It’s a great marriage between ourselves and the McHenry County Convention & Visitors Bureau – driving tourism into the country and preserving these great barns.

What’s new this year?

Our newest addition is an exhibit honoring the late Don Peasley, a longtime McHenry County photographer and historian who died last year. He was a throwback in his profession. For example, he’d go to the barber shop and coffee shop to talk to people. He’d take photographs at Little League baseball games and the county fair. He knew things before anyone else did. I learned so much about the business from Don. His family has donated many artifacts to the Society, including camera equipment, negatives, his desk, typewriter and other mementos.

What’s something people are surprised to learn about you?

My wife, Carol, and I, have a large model train in our basement that keeps us busy during the winter months. Our interest started with a train around the Christmas tree and it grew from there.

We put on an addition and still the train set has taken over much of the basement. Carol is working on dioramas and I’m learning about electronics. There are computer chips inside the engines and I’m soldering wires to LEDs so small that they require using a magnifying visor and a magnifying lens. It’s been a fun hobby.