Chat with...Sue Gold, retiring Westport Historical Society director
WESTPORT — Sue Gold breaks every stereotype of a holed-up historian, yet, for the past decade, she’s worked as the executive director of the Westport Historical Society.
“If you had to chain me to a seat for eight hours and sit there I’d have a hard time,” Gold said, sitting in her office which was nearly cleared out in preparation for her retirement from the nonprofit in mid-January.
“A bundle of energy,” Gold has infused the Westport Historical Society (WHS) with her boundless enthusiasm, said WHS board member Leigh Gage.
During her time in charge, Gold, 62, used that passion to convince local people to speak at the historical society and in so doing, made the institution a cultural hub in town.
A few years back Gold invited the late Westport resident, artist, writer, and civil rights activist Tracy Sugarman to speak with a group of 6-year-olds about his experience going down to Alabama during the civil rights movement and his encounters with Martin Luther King Jr.
“Twenty 6-year-olds learning about civil rights from somebody who’s lived it is pretty amazing,” Gold said.
Over the past decade, Gold has brought local artists, performers, chefs, and speakers to visit the historical society and collaborated with other town nonprofits, such as the Westport Arts Center, the Westport Library, and the Westport Cinema Initiative.
Gold, who served as the historical society’s education director before stepping in as executive director, said she’s especially proud of her efforts to improve the WHS children’s programming. When creating children’s programming Gold said her goal was always to keep it simple and engaging.
“I didn’t have to know extensive history about it, I just had to pick out the nuggets of history that children would be interested in and present that to them in a creative way,” Gold said.
In addition to engaging programming, Gold said she’s executed the important job of any nonprofit director: keeping the organization financially afloat, by cultivating partnerships with local businesses who underwrite and sponsor WHS programs and exhibits.
“A lot of my purposes here was always to feel connected to the rest of the community,” Gold said, a natural fit for the lifelong community-builder.
Born and raised on Long Island, Gold studied sociology at Ithaca College and earned a master’s degree in human services from Cornell University. She moved to Hartford in the early 1980s and shortly thereafter took root in Westport and raised her three kids, all now adults, in town.
At the start of her career, Gold worked as a Planned Parenthood director and then moved into public relations after a long stretch volunteering for the Westport Arts Center where she promoted artists events and was asked by several performers to do PR for them.
Now a Norwalk resident, Gold said she saw an advertisement for the role of program director at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk and got the job, which, in conjunction with her work as education director at the WHS, was a stepping stone to becoming executive director at the historical society.
Gold views everything, including history, through the lens of community.
“We’re here to make people appreciate that there was a great vibrant community here 200 years ago and continues even though it’s changed,” Gold said.
Her favorite stories about Westport history involve those that pair community engagement and the preservation of recreational space. For example, in the 1960s the United Illuminating Company wanted to put a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island but residents rallied and prevented the plant’s construction.
“In those days we didn’t have computers, so there were postcards, many thousands written. It was amazing that we fought a major utility company that has millions and for (the town) to purchase Cockenoe Island and save it as open space for recreational use,” Gold said.
In her time at the WHS, Gold has often told the Cockenoe story while leading kayak trips out to the island. Gold herself is an extremely active person and elite athlete, having run 15 marathons with a personal best of 3 minutes, 9 seconds in the New York Marathon. She teaches yoga before and after work most days and after leaving the WHS, plans to teach yoga full-time in her new home of Naples, Fla.
She said yoga and her work at the historical society were pillars in her life after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008.
“I’m going to work with mind-body practices to empower other survivors like myself and older people to make sure they understand the importance of movement and activity and vibrancy in their lives,” Gold said.
Gold said she’s happy with the board’s choice to elect Ramin Ganeshram, a Westport resident with experience in business, cultural strategy, and community service, as the next WHS executive director.
Looking back, Gold has nothing but good things to say about her decade at WHS.
“It’s been an amazing 11 years, and I walk away with a lot of gratitude for having had this job,” Gold said. “I feel what I learned about myself, this community, and skills I’ve executed here, I’ll take with me wherever I go.”