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Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center director Marcia Poole looks at pending retirement as adventure

May 26, 2019

SIOUX CITY -- Marcia Poole’s love of history was sparked later on in life, after she was hired to handle promotions and publicity for the opening of Sioux City’s Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in 2002.

Poole, a former Sioux City Journal features writer and food editor, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and graduated from the University of Portland, was familiar with the Lewis & Clark story -- in fact, her mom attended Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington. But having a little history of her own, the 69-year-old said, pulled her into local and area history.

“As a kid growing up, so much history was pretty much memorize the who, what, when, where. You did that and you fulfilled your obligation,” Poole said nearly a week before she will retire from her current position as the center’s executive director. “Now, I didn’t have to worry about a grade.”

Poole said one of the best pieces of advice she ever received came from the Rev. Raymond Bucko, a professor of anthropology at Creighton University. He told her, “Don’t try to tell other people’s stories. Invite them to tell their own stories.”

When visitors came through the center’s doors, Poole talked to them. She said that’s how many of them became speakers and great friends of the private, nonprofit cultural complex, which is built and sustained by Missouri River Historical Development, Inc. (MRHD).

Over the years, Poole has worked with dozens of scholars, scientists, athletes, cultural and community leaders, artists, musicians, photographers, performers and even a magician to engage roughly 800,000 visitors through free programming. Topics have ranged from jazz to wildlife to riverboats and more.

After the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, Poole said some people expected the center to close. She thought, “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” and worked Lewis & Clark like a journalist would a big story.

“You’re working it every day and you’re looking for sidebars and the third-day story,” she said. “An exhibit is the start and it opens the door. Then, you’ve got to jump in and find those threads to today and through the years.”

The abundance of stories Siouxland has to tell still astounds Poole. She is fascinated by the explorers’ personalities and York, a slave of William Clark, as well as all of the immigrants who journeyed to Sioux City in waves to work on the railroads and in the stockyards and packing plants.

Poole, who wrote two books on Sioux City Stockyards history, lights up when she talks about the East Bottoms and the 21 languages spoken there. She can’t fathom that she sat in the Journal’s newsroom for years, not realizing the neighborhood’s extraordinary history.

“I think, ‘My gosh, This is fascinating!’ We have the Mary Treglia Community House that started after World War I, precisely for people to learn English and for citizenship and then it expanded,” Poole said while seated at a table in an activity room decorated with old movie posters in the Betty Strong Encounter Center.

Poole was a major player in MRHD’s plans to build the Betty Strong Encounter Center, which opened in December 2007. The center features galleries and an auditorium and commemorates a history of encounters. It is named in memory of community leader and activist Betty Strong, who hired Poole.

During Poole’s tenure, statues of a buffalo, grizzly bear, coyote, white-tailed deer, prairie dog and moose were added to the complex’s picturesque grounds. Animatronics bearing the likeness of Seaman the Newfoundland dog, President Thomas Jefferson and Sgt. Charles Floyd, joined robotic figures of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Poole thinks an animatronic York could come next.

As Poole reflected on her career, the history just kept tumbling out of her mouth. She stopped in between thoughts to wave to a tour group of elementary school students that passed by.

While also researching the East Bottoms, Poole was surprised to learn that famed architect William Steele designed a small church, Annunciation Catholic Church, at Eighth and Chambers streets, which was known as the “Syrian and Italian Mission Church.” Steele is better known for his prominent buildings in Sioux City, including the Davidson Building, the Livestock Exchange Building and the Woodbury County Courthouse.

“Here are all these stories right here under our own noses,” said Poole, who thinks of herself as an “outsider,” having moved to Sioux City in 1978, when her husband, Richard, began teaching at Briar Cliff University. “I think maybe when it’s not your home, you see it differently.”

Poole even finds a history lesson in sugar cookies, which children often decorate at the center. During the expedition, she said the explorers had just a “little, tiny bit” of sugar.

“Sugar wasn’t widely available to anybody really until after the Civil War. You can take a little cookie and tell these stories,” she said. “There’s something to learn from food, music and art.”

Poole also learned a thing or two from a natural disaster -- the Missouri River flood of 2011. Poole said she was “wringing her hands” as the waters of the swollen river inched closer. Staff, board members, family and friends were forced to pack up pieces of local history and rush them out of the 20,000-square-foot complex.

“We had just literally a couple days to get out of here. We didn’t know how high the water was going to go,” Poole said. “We were pretty much closed for seven months.”

During the shutdown, Poole set out to tell the story of the Missouri River. The research she did from home spawned an exhibit that now fills a hallway at the center. Poole said the river had always been in the background, but suddenly, it had become a “massive story.”

“It was so discouraging, but we got back on our feet and started all over again,” she said.

Part of Poole’s dream has been providing more programming for young people. The Marcia Poole Youth Program Fund was recently established to continue to fulfill that dream after Poole departs for Bowling Green, Kentucky, where her son, Alex, and her 11- and 13-year-old granddaughters live. Mike McCormick, a retired Sioux City Police Department sergeant who has held several roles with the center since it opened, will succeed her.

Tracy Bennett has joined the center as assistant director. Bennett, who has served as co-director of Siouxland Movement Art Center, will produce programs for the Betty Strong Encounter Center and develop community outreach and partnerships.

Poole has no doubt that MRHD, the center’s staff and the community will carry on the legacy, as she undertakes a new adventure.

“People ask me if I’m going to be sad, of course,” she said. “But I’m taking a great big treasure chest of experiences and fun people and lots of laughs.”

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