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Belar retires from Perham museums: Passionate historian and veteran's advocate has been with both museums since 'day one'

Vicki Gerdes/Forum Communications Co. Lina Belar, at the ITOW Veterans Museum in Perham.

After decades of dedicated and tireless work to get Perham's two museums up and running, Lina Belar has officially retired.

Last week, Belar spent her last days as executive director of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County and the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum.

Belar announced her intent to retire in November, and the museums' Board of Directors accepted her notice, effective Dec. 19.

"I will be 70 next year," Belar said. "I've been with this whole thing since day one. Everything has just kept adding on and growing."

"At some point, you simply have to have masters in specific areas to work on certain things," she added. "The timing is good... we have a great, talented board (in charge)."

Belar also wants to spend some time focusing on her music and her writing, as well as enjoying family time with her son and grandson.

"I play keyboards at church, and trumpet with area orchestras... I plan to do more of that," she said, "and one of my retirement goals is to do more writing.

"I also love this area, so I expect I'll still be involved with the community in some fashion."

Falling in love

Though she grew up in the hustle and bustle of New York and New Jersey, when Lina Belar first set eyes on the quiet little town of Perham in 1984, it was love at first sight.

"I fell in love immediately, and that was it," she said. "I've never looked back, and never regretted it for a second.

"It was at a time when people in New York discovered that they could buy land out here for $5,000 -- you can't buy a closet for $5,000 in New York," Belar added wryly.

And though her background was in music, writing, and other liberal arts pursuits, Belar found herself working in construction, greenhouses -- "a little bit of everything" after making the move to Minnesota.

She also met her late husband, Jerome Boedigheimer, after moving here.

"We were married almost 25 years," she said. "He was a native of the area. He was on the (Perham city) council for 10-12 years, and he started the park board. A lot of local beautification efforts -- he was the catalyst for that. He left a big legacy."

Boedigheimer's passion for community involvement was also something he and his wife had in common. It was when Belar was helping to raise funds for the construction of a new library in Perham that the question came up of what to do with "this beautiful, old building" that housed the original library.

"They (the library) were in a real growth stage -- the head librarian was retiring, and they would be hiring a new director along with building a new library," Belar said.

But at the same time, the existing structure, built in 1887, had a real history in the community, and they didn't want to see it demolished.

With so much history tied up in that building, Belar hit upon the idea of setting up a museum there.

Learning through doing

At the time, the nature of museums was in the midst of changing, and Lina Belar was faced with a dilemma: "How can a little museum, in a little town, leave a big footprint?"

Two things helped put the Perham museum on the map. The first was to create a museum that was "more than just collections."

"Museums were originally just collections of stuff that people wanted to share with the public," Belar said.

Over time, they began to evolve into places where people could tell the stories of their past, both good and bad.

And that's what Belar had in mind when she designed the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.

"I had not had any experience with museum design when I started," she said. "But I had a really good mentor at the Minnesota Historical Society, Dave Nystuen (who has since retired).

"He said, 'Think about the story (behind the artifacts),'" Belar added, noting that even a hat can tell a story -- as in, who wore it, when, where and why.

The next step is to find a way to tell those stories "in a way that makes them want to keep coming back and hearing them again."

Nystuen also suggested visiting museums in other communities, "to see what they're doing."

"I did most of my museum studies at the Minnesota History Center, and (at museums) in Washington, D.C.," Belar said -- but she also learned a lot from visiting other historic sites owned by the Minnesota Historical Society in communities across the state.

"I found that there were a lot of good examples of what I wanted right here in Minnesota," she added.

But the most important lesson that Nystuen taught her, Belar said, was "never compromise on your vision -- just find an economical way to do it."

The second thing that helped the history museum to establish a reputation beyond Perham's borders was creating a digital archive of its resources and making that archive available to the public online.

With the help of her son, Rama Calabria, whom she describes as a "technical wizard," Belar was able to set up an online database of local newspapers (both Perham and New York Mills), old photographs and history books, which first became available to the public online in 2001.

"We achieved a reputation beyond our borders because of that, and because we created a museum that was about more than just collections," Belar said. "The Minnesota Historical Society began referring to us as the poster child for small museums."

The History Museum of East Otter Tail County opened in 1998, with Belar at the helm as its director.

Though the Historical Society oversees operations, a new nonprofit group, the Friends of the Museum, was also established to help raise funds for its support and maintenance -- and it was that group that helped raise the funds necessary to establish a second local museum, exclusively focused on the lives and stories of military veterans.

In Their Own Words

After the history museum was successfully established, Lina Belar was approached by members of the Perham VFW about creating a museum for, and about, local veterans.

"They wanted people to hear their stories," Belar said. "They wanted something more personal... something that was 'not just rows of guns and uniforms.' That became my mission statement."

After some further discussions with Dave Nystuen and her son Rama Calabria, Belar conceived the idea of a museum built around recordings of the oral histories of the veterans themselves.

But more than that, she wanted it to be "more interactive -- not just listening to their stories, but being a part of it."

One of the facilities that Belar used as inspiration was the "Newseum," billed as "Washington, D.C.'s most interactive museum." The facility incorporates the latest in digital imaging and interactive communications technology to chronicle centuries of news and journalism history.

But that museum incorporates hundreds of thousands of square feet of available space, and an annual budget that runs into the millions.

The resources offered by a community of Perham's size were, of necessity, much smaller.

But going back to Nystuen's philosophy, "never compromise your vision," Belar made that vision happen using the local resources available to her -- namely, community support and volunteers.

That support began with her family. Her husband built the "bunker" that houses a unique World War I exhibit, and her son helped build the control room and mount the interactive exhibits that are the heart of the ITOW Veterans Museum.

Kirk Van Dorn also helped by recording most of the oral and video histories that form the basis of those exhibits. In all, the archive contains more than 200 oral histories recorded by area veterans.

Located inside the old VFW building in Perham, the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum opened in 2006 -- and became an instant hit.

The "interactive" part of the museum comes from the fact that visitors can choose the identity of one of the veterans and use that chosen identity to explore the exhibits. A "dog tag" containing data about the chosen identity is handed to the visitor, who can take it to one of the interactive "identity kiosks" and scan it, then listen to the veteran's detailed, personal account of his or her war experiences.

"This is not a history lesson, or propaganda," Belar said. "What you will get is absolutely accurate, honest information, from one person's point of view."

The exhibits tell the stories of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and more, as well as the experiences of those who lived through the war on the homefront.

During World War II, the people who experienced it back home had "a sense of total involvement that hasn't been replicated since," Belar explained. "It's an important part of our history."

Other exhibits take visitors from the time a soldier enters the service, through basic training, to fighting on the front lines, and so on, until they are discharged.

One story is about a man who worked as a baker for the army, and became the only baker to ever receive a Purple Heart, after getting wounded while delivering baked goods to the troops on the front lines. Another tells the experience of a soldier who fought on Omaha Beach, while still another relates the story of a soldier in Korea whose unit was overrun by the enemy.

"One exhibit is dedicated to prisoners of war," Belar added, while still another is about protestors during the Vietnam War -- told "from both sides of the protest line."

Belar showed an obvious love for her work while giving the exhibit tour, and admits, "This is my baby."

But at the same time, she added, "I now feel like it's a pretty well established adolescent, that can sort of fly on its own."

In other words... she's ready for a new challenge.

A version of this article originally appeared in Minnesota Boomers, a publication of Forum Communications Co. Focus Editor Marie Nitke contributed to this article.