Gerald “Jerry” Chappell may not be a native of Laurel, but he has a deep love for his adopted home and its history.
“Every time I turn down Main Street, I’m touched by the fact that it’s a snapshot of history, and the museum is at the end of the street. When you drive Main Street Laurel, you get a sense of what Laurel was like in earlier times,” Chappell said, adding, “... I like Laurel, I like living here and I love the people.”
Chappell, 70, recently was named the Laurel Historical Society’s 2012 Volunteer of the Year for his eight years of service, primarily as a docent, at the Laurel Museum.
“Jerry is a really great volunteer, and he is one of our go-to people for a [tour] group of adults. It’s not to say he isn’t good with kids, but he’s really good with adults, and he enjoys doing it, so whenever we know we have a large group coming in, we try to make sure he is on the schedule,” said LHS Executive Director Lindsey Baker.
The LHS is a nonprofit organization formed in 1976 to preserve the cultural and historical heritage of Laurel; it opened the museum in 1996.
“Jerry’s hard work and dedication over the years have helped the LHS strengthen our tours and serve the community better,” Baker added.
After Chappell retired from the Department of Energy, where he worked as deputy assistant secretary for information resources management, he and his wife began looking for ways to become more involved in the Laurel community, where they have lived since 1968.
Chappell said he always has been involved — as a coach, in the PTA, the civic association, the swim club — but when his wife, Jean, became involved in the LHS, he followed her lead and has been active ever since.
“He has a deep love of history,” said Jean Chappell, adding that her husband often has brought her to historical talks, which she has found interesting.
Chappell volunteers a couple times per week at the museum, which once was a residence for mill workers and their families, giving tours of the exhibits and working in the museum’s shop, as well as volunteering at festivals.
During the museum’s previous exhibit, “True Life: I Was a Laurel Mill Worker,” Chappell was able to share his own experiences growing up in a mill family in Burlington, N.C., and working in the mill during high school.
“This year, his insight into the world of mill workers was particularly valuable,” Baker said.
Volunteers such as Chappell are vital to the functioning of the museum, Baker said.
“As an organization, because we only have one-and-a-half paid staff, we do depend on our volunteers for a number of things,” Baker said.
Chappell’s favorite exhibit, he said, was the one about Laurel during World War II. He noted that Laurel had an all-female fire department due to the lack of able-bodied men at home during the war.
“This museum may be small, but the history is huge,” Chappell said.