welcomes new director
Dr. Sam Couch, who took Lyle Wirtanen’s place as Museum Director on January 4, is no stranger to the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude. While completing his dissertation at University of Idaho, he worked at nearby archeological sites at Warren and frequently found himself at the Monastery. “Sister Alfreda’s work was really useful to me.” he says. Sister Alfreda Elsensohn founded the Historical Museum and wrote several books on Idaho history. Sister Catherine Manderfeld, who worked at the museum, also helped Sam and his students access the collection for research.
With his teaching experience and focus on regional history, becoming the next museum director seems like a natural progression in his career. “Everything I’ve done in my life up to this point prepared me for this,” he states. Dr. Couch has taught at Dickinson University in North Dakota, Georgia Southern University located in Statesboro outside of Savannah (where he created the Summer Study Abroad in Ireland program) and Young-Harris College where he created the Irish Studies Program. While in Georgia, Dr. Couch was also instrumental in getting the Regents of the state to allow the Irish language as acceptable to fulfill college language requirements.
Dr. Couch is a cultural geographer, studying the imprint cultures have on the landscape. “Everything is geography,” he explains, “history, sociology, anthropology…what is the second question you always ask someone: Where are you from?” His own work has focused on the Chinese miners of North Central Idaho and how their relationship to place defined their experiences here. He refers to the love the Chinese had for their homeland as “topophilia” which literally means “love of the land.” It is a broad term in cultural geography to describe place attachment.
You might say that Dr. Couch experiences a similar feeling at the Monastery. Having grown up on the prairies of Nebraska, he feels most at home in wide open spaces. “This is one of the most serene places on the planet.”
Calling the museum a “gem in the gem state,” Dr. Couch’s dreams as museum director include building on the work of Lyle and Sister Alfreda to expand the reach of the Historical Museum to national and international levels. “The history of the frontier American west is so diverse and filled with incredible stories,” he says. “Sister Alfreda did a remarkable job with the first generation of Idahoan frontier people, their descendants are building a new world for us too. We must capitalize on their contributions in the Idaho County and the world beyond.”