“If you find a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”

On May 10, 2013, Tom Friggens was awarded a Michigan  Historic Preservation Network Lifetime Achievement Award for “devoting over thirty-five years to the recognition and preservation of the Upper Peninsula’s historic and cultural sites.”

With his permission, we are pleased to be able to share a little about his career, and then, the moving words shared with the over 100 audience members that evening during his acceptance of the award.

Tom Friggens has devoted his 37-year professional life to introducing others to the history of the Upper Peninsula. Even before received his BA in History with Honors from Albion in 1971, he had served three summers as an interpreter at Fort Michilimackinac. After receiving his MA in American History from Wayne State in 1973, he joined Michigan’s Bureau of History the following year and soon had his first field assignment in the U.P. He was hooked and never worked downstate again.      

As a graduate student in 1973, Tom served as a contract historian for Fayette State Park where he would later become a regional supervisor of the museum operation. 

Tom, seated lower right, with his Bureau of History Colleagues, Fort Wilkins, 1975

Tom, seated on the ground (right), with his Bureau of History Colleagues, Fort Wilkins, 1975

From 1974 to 1985, he served at Fort Wilkins State Park located at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Tom became known for putting the Fort’s interpretation on firm historical and archaeological footings, writing pieces such as Fort Wilkins Yesterday and Today with Patrick Martin in 2000, or earlier with Joseph Schroeder in 1987, developing the “Fort Wilkins Historic Site Living History Program’s Role Player’s Manual” that continues to serve in the Fort’s interpretation.

During his career, Tom authored texts on what it was like for soldiers and their families simply to live at Fort Wilkins. He wrote about diet; about the anguish of witnessing shipwrecks; about trying to heat their homes as Lake Superior’s winter winds lashed. This scholarship enlivened museum exhibits with the sights and sounds of army life and the costumed portrayals of soldiers and their families using a living history program on which Tom collaborated with NMU’s Department of History.

Tom Friggens seated at his desk in the Michigan Iron Industry Museum

Tom at his desk in the Michigan Iron Industry Museum

Tom next moved to the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee in 1986, starting as an Historian, moving into the Directorship, and holding the title of Upper Peninsula Sites Coordinator for the Michigan Historical Museum System before his 2011 retirement. The Museum stands in the ravines of the Carp River at the site of the first iron forge in the Lake Superior Region. Tom continued to write both scholarly and popular works such as 1998’s No Tears in Heaven: The 1926 Barnes-Hecker Mine Disaster, and in 2011, an article for the Chronicle titled “Hard Rock and Iron Souls.” Today, Tom’s work and that of many others enriches the 48-mile-long interpretive trail extending from the Lake Superior shore in Chocolay Township to the Village of Republic, passing through Marquette and the mining communities of Negaunee and Ishpeming.

In 2006, Tom presents at Fort Wilkins.

In 2006, Tom opened a new exhibit at Fort Wilkins.

Tom is a familiar presenter throughout Michigan and has taken leadership roles in several state and local historical organizations.  He has taught at NMU and Michigan Tech, consulted with other museums, and encouraged countless historians, educators, and students. Along the way, he has received honors including, in 2006, the Charles Follo Award, the highest recognition given by the Historical Society of Michigan to a leader in U.P. history.

Tom with his MHPN Lifetime Achievement Award

Tom with his MHPN Lifetime Achievement Award

It’s a bit unnerving to hear one’s name used in the same sentence as ‘lifetime achievement.’  I’m reminded of a conversation with our dear daughter-in-law Debbie at the time of my retirement…

“Dad,” she asked, “are you excited to start a new chapter in your life?”

After some thought, I said “yeah . . . But, I wish it didn’t come so near the end of the book.”  (Now, two years later, we must be approaching the index . . . and I can only hope it’s a very thorough, very long index.)

There’s an American folk adage that says “if you find a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”

Many of my former colleagues in several state agencies, universities and communities, as well as a legion of talented seasonal interpreters, rightfully share in this award (As does Mary, the center of my life for more than 40 years).

In our travels since retiring, Mary and I have poignantly experienced the theme of this conference:  “The Ingredients of Place.”

Most recently, we toured England, where we lodged two nights at Cape Cornwall in a St. Just B&B which was once home to three generations of my family.

We slept in my great-great grandfather’s bedroom, next to my great-grandparent’s room, and across the hall from the room my grandfather shared with his brothers.  By chance, I stood in the room where my grandfather was born on the anniversary of his birth 130 years ago.

For a brief but moving visit, we trod where my ancestors had, absorbed sights they had known, and identified camera angles of photographs they had taken more than a century ago. . . .  We experienced a sense of place.

Whether by profession or avocation, society is tasked to preserve and perpetuate the heritage entrusted to us by our forebearers for succeeding generations.

My point is this:

If the soldiers and their families who once served at Fort Wilkins could return across 17 decades, they would again feel at home in a built and natural environment that has changed little since 1844.

If the immigrant laborers could return to Fayette today after 125 years, they would still recognize the former company town and majestic dolomite bluffs that surround its deep-water harbor.

And, if the pioneer entrepreneurs who birthed Michigan’s iron industry could visit the museum today, the forested ravines of the carp river valley would stir their memories.

For these are ingredients of place – physical, intellectual and emotional touchstones with the past.

When we have run our final race and, in retirement, passed the baton, may it be said of each of us that we met our commitment to those who went before us, and our responsibility to those who follow.

Let that be our legacy:  that we were good stewards of the past – who simply strove to do our best to preserve a rich natural and cultural heritage for our children . . . And for their children.

I’m not sure you’ve selected the right person for this award . . . But, before you change your mind, I accept it on his behalf, with heartfelt thanks.

Tom Friggens

Awards Ceremony - Lifetime Achievement - Thomas G Friggens

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3 Responses to “If you find a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”

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  3. Luanne Hiltunen Goodrich says:

    Dear Thom, Congratulations on your retirement and Lifetime achievement award. I often think fondly of my days at Fort Wilkens and working with you and so many others. I am ready to step into the role of Kate Holmes any time! Seems like yesterday, can’t believe we’ve gotten to this age so fast. Take Care, Luanne Hiltunen Goodrich

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