UW-Green Bay alumna works to sustain the peninsula’s past and its future
Bailey Koepsel ’15 (Public Administration) is in a position many of her millennial peers will find familiar, yet her challenge is unique: How does she keep alive the history of generations that came before, even as she strives to set a course that sustains her organization for generations to come?
You see, Koepsel is executive director of the Door County Historical Society. It’s a position she’s held for just over three years, after serving for two and half years as assistant director at Lawrence University’s Björklunden campus near Baileys Harbor, a job she landed right after graduating.
“I’ve always had a passion for history,” said Koepsel from her workspace in the Door County Historical Society’s offices in Sturgeon Bay. “I did not live in Door County as a child, but I spent almost every summer weekend here. My aunt and uncle own Koepsel’s Farm Market, and my parents, who both worked at Mayville High School, own Koepsel’s Meadow Lane Antiques, and most of my family lives in Baileys Harbor, so I spent a lot of time growing up here. That’s why I love this place.
“After my work at Björklunden, I started at DCHS and things just kind of took off!” Her career growth was helped by her bachelor’s degree in Public Administration, with an emphasis on non-profit management, and her minor in Political Science.
Koepsel now finds herself wearing all the hats the leader of a small, non-profit organization wears: Publicist, volunteer coordinator, fund-raiser and, when the need arises, painter or carpenter.
“I enjoy the challenge of developing strategy and writing grants, but I also enjoy getting outside occasionally to help with the restoration work we do,” said Koepsel. “It’s nice to use a different part of my brain and to accomplish something tangible.”
She also relishes the challenge of working alongside people the ages of her parents and grandparents, leading her organization’s work in sharing Door County’s history and, at the same time, striving to attract people closer to her own age to sustain the Society’s mission.
“We have about one hundred visitors each day during the summer at the two sites the Society is responsible for,” said Koepsel, referring to the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park and Heritage Village at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay. “I’ve been
surprised at how our visitors engage with the volunteers who lead tours there. My goal is to use that interest to sustain the Society for years to come.
“I think I’ve been most challenged by the ‘people’ side of this work,” she continued. “I’m learning what attracts them to our facilities and our store, and what motivates them to support us, whether that’s as a volunteer or a donor. I know we need to attract more 20-, 30- and 40-somethings to work with our current donors and volunteers if we’re going to sustain our mission.”
Koepsel’s takes encouragement in her quest from her recent success at securing a 15-year lease agreement with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse.
“We have major projects in the works for the lighthouse,” said Koepsel, “so having the security of a long-term lease benefits everyone involved.
“I know that will be one of the most significant things I’ll ever accomplish in my career,” she added. “And I relied on many of the skills I learned in my political science classes to work through the governmental and regulatory processes the DNR required.”
Her education at UW-Green Bay continues to serve her well in other areas of her work, Koepsel said, especially her experience with what she calls “the Big Three.” Those are Aaron Weinschenk and David Helpap in political science, and Lora Warner in donor management and fundraising. In fact, she’s often in touch with Warner for guidance with the nuances of grant-writing, working with donors and fundraising in general.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my professors at UW Green Bay for any success I’ve had,” said Koepsel. “I learned so much from them about what they taught, but also about the way they taught it and how they engaged with us as students. Those are lessons I’ve tried to emulate in my work with donors and volunteers.
“I also have to credit my husband and my parents for getting me through some of the more stressful times,” she smiled. “They’ve tolerated my rants from time to time.”
Although she keeps one eye on preserving and sharing the history of Door County, Koepsel also has her gaze firmly fixed on Door County Historical Society’s future. While she and her staff of two are helping the organization recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also working with the Society’s board of directors to plan some new fundraising events and to recruit new members to the organization.
“I am lucky to have inherited a very active and well-organized program committee, so I am able to discuss ideas with them and they run with them,” said Koepsel. “Our members are largely area business owners and we’re fortunate they sponsor our annual Heritage Halloween event, so all the admission proceeds to directly to the Society. The program committee also coordinates our monthly dinner programs, which came back in August. Now I think it’s time for us to develop a larger, signature event.”
It’s clear that Koepsel is beginning to make her mark, which is something she encourages all millennials to do.
“I know it might be difficult for my generation to work in a world dominated by people our parents’ ages,” she said. I would tell them that it’s all right to ‘take up space’ and be a leader as a young person. I think we have a tendency to keep quiet or let ourselves get walked over when we encounter resistance because we don’t want to cause trouble.
“I think we need to ‘be a problem for our problems’ as I like to say,” Koepsel continued. “’Chaotic good’ is another way to express it. Have the confidence to do what you think needs to be done, even if others think it might upset things a little.”
Koepsel is confident that philosophy will lead the Door County Historical Society to a prosperous future, built on the peninsula’s colorful past.
Story by freelance writer Jim Streed, APR
Photos by Cody LaCrosse with Tandem Photography