During the 11 years he served as director of the Douglas County Museum, Gardner Chappell was all about making history fun for kids, and his passion and enthusiasm brought the museum to life.
That’s how friends and co-workers described Chappell on Tuesday. Chappell, 46, died Monday of brain cancer, and those who knew him say he will be missed.
“To me, Gardner was just almost bigger than life,” said Karen Bratton, research librarian collections manager at the museum. “You always knew when Gardner was in the room....He was just the light and the life of the museum out here. He really brought it to life.”
Chappell had first been diagnosed with cancer 5 years ago, but appeared to have beaten it. He had surgery in September after the cancer returned. After that, he wasn’t able to return to work. He retired officially in March.
Chappell was particularly known for his educational efforts. He created classrooms and educational programs at the museum, and he revamped and revitalized the museum to appeal to children.
“He made it a happy place for kids,” Bratton said. “Everything we did there had to have a hands-on component created with it so the kids could go in, and they could just touch things, and feel things, and interact with different objects. So they would get a real museum experience, and not just come in and look at things through a glass case.”
Former museum director Daniel Robertson said Chappell was a “magnificent museum director.” Chappell inherited a wonderful facility and a well-maintained collection, and then he did exactly what was needed next — created an “incredible” education program, Robertson said.
“He brought the place alive with kids, and that was his focus, and he did a wonderful job of it,” he said.
Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said Chappell had a passion for his job and his profession that was “just amazing and it will be hard to replace.”
He said Chappell always had something in his hand to show the commissioners what he was working on, even if it was something as simple as a sample of some fencing he wanted to put up.
“That guy was better at show-and-tell than any guy I’ve ever met,” he said.
He recalled how excited Chappell was after he’d received a donation for a printer that could reproduce historical maps and documents for sale. It helped the museum and helped history spread beyond the walls in which the collection was confined.
“It was just that sort of forward thinking and that sort of excitement and sharing what was his passion that was pretty awe-inspiring. It was good to be around,” Freeman said.
“We’re all saddened by his loss,” he added.
With the county hurtling toward a financial crisis with the loss of federal timber payments, the museum’s future is uncertain. Bratton said she’s concerned about that.
“It’ll be a shame if everything he worked so hard for here goes away because of lack of funding,” she said.
Freeman said the museum’s budget is small compared with that of the library system. It requires just about $270,000 from the general fund compared with the $2 million the library required. The Roseburg library branch is slated to close at the end of the month, and other libraries have either shut down or reopened as reading rooms with all-volunteer staff.
Freeman said he’s hopeful the county won’t have to close the museum. He’d like to see a nonprofit organization step forward to take on the museum’s operation.
Robertson said in addition to his work for the museum, Chappell was known for his contributions to the arts community.
“Gardner was the kind of person that made culture matter in our community, and really brought a breath of fresh air to the entire culture of the community,” he said.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Douglas County Museum Foundation in memory of Chappell.