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Diffatte leads De Pere Historical Society

By Lee Reinsch

DE PERE – How does a drama major end up directing a midsize city’s historical society?

Sounds unlikely, on the face of it. But it begins to make sense when you think about it – it’s all about the people.

“All of the artifacts and documents and things that we see around us all tell a story about people,” said Susan

Diffatte, who said her Ripon College theater and communications major has helped her bring disparate pieces and people together, throughout her many careers.

It’s the motivation of the people that makes the history, she said. And motivation is what acting and directing are all about.

“There’s a lot of crossover: you’re using the same skills to take lots of different people, ideas and things, and get them all to move together in the same direction to come out with a bigger whole than you would have if you had just done it yourself,” she said.

Diffatte (pronounced DaFOT) started her post as director of the De Pere Historical Society last spring. She grew up in Kaukauna, the daughter of school teachers. Her father coached football.

Diffatte took master classes in acting and directing at the Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in West Hollywood from Lee Strasberg, father of method acting, and director Sydney Pollack, whose 1985 film, “Out of Africa,” won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Pollack.

“That was all about speech and dramatics and using creativity in speech and getting your message across in whatever manner,” she said.

That comes in handy for doing living history as well as speaking to potential volunteers, donors, sponsors and board members.

Putting the pieces together

At the 32-room Beechwood Mansion in Newport, R.I., known best as the vacation home of Caroline Astor (who apparently insisted that people refer to her as “The Mrs. Astor”) Diffatte helped institute a living history tour that enjoyed a long run.

It drew together actors playing everyone from the footman, servants and butler to “The Mrs. Astor” herself, each player busily tending to their duties of washing windows, polishing silver, dusting the wood paneling and creating huge floral arrangements, just as they would have in real life.

At Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, where she worked for about a decade, she helped put together some 400 shows a year – everything from concerts, lectures and receptions to the month-long Sommerfest celebration.

This involved coordinating people and departments from designers and fabricators to front-office ticket sales to create the perfect opera experience or VIP reception.

“It’s taking all these different things and putting them together,” she said. “Here (with the De Pere Historical Society), we have the archive person and the finance person, the person who is well-connected in the community (as well as the volunteers, board members, fundraisers, etc.) – all of the different people we have that contribute to this organization; you’re trying to move everybody together.”

Their many projects include education programs, the popular annual photo show (held Sept. 12 at West De Pere High School), the respected Museum Archive & Research System (MARS) center at White Pillars, Santa’s House, the Polo Resto former service station at Voyageur Park, and the White Pillars museum itself.

MARS has newspapers dating to 1883, thanks in part to Frank Wood, who donated newspapers when when he sold the Green Bay News-Chronicle in 2004.

The newspapers are digitized through 2000.

MARS also has digitized Dutch newspapers dating to 1878, plus a large library of deeds, documents, holy cards and more than 1,000 maps, according to De Pere Historical Society archivist Dan Milquet.

“There are lots a different pieces that all live on their own but try to play together,” Diffatte said.


The secret to getting everyone on the same page? Loving what you do, following your values, and above all, positive movement.

“When people start to see things working, they start to buy in,” Diffatte said. “They have to see results, even tiny results… then they say ‘Look, this is working.’”

Small improvements – giving volunteers a dedicated workspace in which to do their work, establishing a credit card account so those making purchases don’t have to deal with check-cutting, streamlining the mailing list, and making use of nonprofit postage rates – have made a huge difference.

“If people know I can take problems out of their way, it becomes an unstoppable force,” she said. “They start to come forward with ideas on how to improve things. It’s exciting to see.”

Looking ahead

Diffatte said future aims include getting funding for the Society’s education initiative and beefing up educational programs. Sending re-enactors to schools and adding a boat tour to teach kids about the Fox River firsthand are a few ideas under discussion.

The group is also working on widening its audience reach, building networking and media-systems outreach, and possibly moving the headquarters out of White Pillars to the proposed future Mulva Cultural Center.

“If we go to the Mulva center, that will just be plain spectacular,” Diffatte said. “We have some serious thoughts, but once we start getting things signed and sealed, we’ll know more. We’re putting all these pieces together.”

Coincidentally, she’s kind of good at that.

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