Threads: Stitching Together a Shared Docent History

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Threads: Stitching Together a Shared Docent History

By Barbara Kolesar, Docent

As important as knowing where we are, is remembering how we got here.

Docenting is an integral part of the fabric of Reynolda House. It is interesting to examine the reasons folks became tour docents, the training they took to equip them for the job, and what this volunteer activity has given back to them. I interviewed three long-standing docents recently, and although there is the common thread of love for Reynolda, each one had a story to tell.

Docent Picnic

Docents gather at the annual docent-volunteer celebration

Judith Smith became a docent in 1977 after a move from Houston, Texas where she had been interested in Bayou Bend, a historic home owned by Governor Hogg who collected furniture. Judith was favorably struck by the Discovery Method begun by Nick Bragg (which she took three times!), as well as the flexible hours she could work at the Museum. In the 1980s and 1990s there were as many as 300 – 400 docents!  Judith said she met the best and brightest of Winston-Salem at Reynolda House and her involvement changed the way she looked at all other museums.  In 1979 Judith began a twenty-seven year career at the Museum, working in the Marketing and Public Relations Department.  She would also give tours to travel writers from Conde Nast, Travel and Leisure, and Wake Forest administrators. Tours in those days focused on the art collection, not on the family or house architecture. In the 1970s, there were language days where tours were given in French, Spanish, Chinese. Judith most loved the “gracious hospitality (at Reynolda) and the feeling of being part of a team.”

Evelyn Ward came to Winston-Salem in 1972 and became a docent soon thereafter. Training for Evelyn was “very intensive” and she, too, took the course more than once.  A component of Evelyn’s training was making an artistic work such as a painting, soap sculpture, etching or wood block print.  European travel was a major ingredient in Evelyn’s Reynolda training and she went on several “Literary and Cultural Tours” with Ed Wilson and Nick Bragg. Trip participants read extensively before the tour and so were well prepared to see sights important to C.S. Lewis, Yates, Elliott, Hardy, James, and the Bloomsbury Group. Art was always the central focus from Scotland and France to England and Italy. Personal development was the primary reason for Evelyn’s career as a docent. She loved learning and thoroughly enjoyed the speakers and curators who came to Reynolda to speak to the docents, thus enabling a deeper appreciation of the artwork and delivering this love to student and adult tours.  

Docenting was a perfect second career for Mac Mitchell who came to Reynolda House in 2001, looking to keep physically and intellectually active after retiring from teaching history at the Career Center of Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools. An inquisitive mind, and a natural dispenser of knowledge, Mac loved the collaborative approach used in the Docent Discovery Course and became an excellent tour guide. He joined his class of twenty, and enjoyed the fellowship of the group and the opportunity to delve into the history of the Reynolds family, its joys and sorrows, its part in the Industrial Revolution, and RJR’s force in the building of an empire. Mac’s most frightening experience was when he was followed by a video production crew on his second or third tour, as the crew was shooting the orientation video we see now in the Orientation Gallery. Mac was of course smooth as silk but was taken totally by surprise! He is a veritable walking history book of the Reynolds family and their home. Today, Mac is the consummate docent and takes great pleasure in seeing visitors leave pleased that they have become acquainted with such rich family history and world class art.  

And so the thread runs on. More than forty years of docenting from Judith Smith and Evelyn Ward in the 1970s through to the Mac Mitchell today. While the Docent Discovery Course has been updated, including its name, the basic reason why folks become docents has not changed: to quench a curious spirit, learn more about a remarkable family, satisfy a love of art, and share the experience with others. The fabric that is Reynolda House is solid because the docent thread is strong.

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