By Dan Baldwin (Avenue News, 1/5/2016)
Essex resident June Donovan wears many hats. Though many may not recognize her name, they are surely familiar with her work. For more than 12 years she has served as a co-chair for the annual Essex Day Festival and has been the president of the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River since January 2013, now serving her second term.
Donovan has decided to hang up her hats and is in the process of making sure the Heritage museum and Essex Day Festival are left in good hands as she plans to move to Murrelles Inlet, S.C., after living in Essex for the past 20 years.
According to Donovan, her involvement with the museum first began in late 2012. At the time the museum was struggling and she received a call from Paul M. Blitz to see if she was interested in joining the museum and becoming the next president.
“[The museum] was in disarray,” Donovan told the Avenue. “Things of quality were stored away in closets and under tables that should have been out on display.”
As the newly elected president, Donovan, along with her team of newly elected board members, quickly got to work painting interior walls, reorganizing exhibits, and clearing out storage areas to store items properly.
“My main concern was making sure the museum was accessible to the public and to get more people to come through the door,” Donovan said. “I think we accomplished that.”
Under her leadership the museum has hosted numerous new functions during the past few years, welcomed several Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, hosted private tours and ghost hunts, and much more. The return of the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 2014 was also orchestrated by Donovan.
According to Donovan, her favorite exhibit room in the museum is the newly opened Military Room, a room which she and her dedicated volunteers put together “from the floor up” and dedicated to all branches of the U.S. Military. Previously used for storage, the space now features a U.S. Navy outfit from World War II, which was donated from a Rockaway Beach resident, several personal items donated by the late Al Clasing, an American flag which was previously flown at Holly Hill Memorial Gardens, and much more.
“We are very happy to have Mr. Clasing see [the Military Room] before he passed,” Donovan said. Clasing passed on Dec. 16, 2015.
Not far away from the Military Room sits Donovan’s favorite donation the museum had acquired last year, an original turnout coat belonging to Capt. Charles “Buck” Horner who worked at the firehouse before it was converted into the Heritage museum.
Donovan will officially give up her presidency Thursday evening, Jan. 7, during the Heritage Society’s next meeting. She will be replaced by former vice president Terri Knachel, who will finish out Donovan’s term until the end of the year.
“I enjoyed the entire experience,” Donovan said about her time volunteering with the Heritage Society. “I can’t just pinpoint one thing. I enjoyed all the functions. I enjoyed all the people.”
The second void Donovan needed to fill before her departure from Essex was her replacement to take the reigns of the popular Essex Day Festival.
Donovan has been the co-chair of the festival since George Willbanks offered his position to her shortly after 2000.
“George was running the festival and was going to give it up,” Donovan recalled.
According to Donovan, the yearly festival would most likely have come to an end if someone didn’t come in and replace Willbanks.
Even though the long-time co-chair is leaving, familiar faces will still be seen at next year’s festival.
Joe DiCara will return as the festival chairman, and he will be joined by co-chairs Kevin McDonough and Carol Karwacki. Both McDonough and Karwacki volunteered with last year’s festival and Donovan assures she will be passing all of her knowledge on to them so this year’s festival will go on without a hitch.
“I’m looking forward to being able to provide some of my assistance and expertise to the festival,” McDonough said. “Currently the new leadership is taking a good hard look at all aspects of the festival and seeing how we can tweak and improve upon things to keep this time honored community tradition alive and successful.”
McDonough is familiar with putting on large one-day events as he is also the Middle River Fireworks Committee fundraising chairman.
The remaining staff will be made up of former co-chair Randy Carr and Tasia Darden.
“I think they will make the festival 10 times better,” Donovan said. “I really do. The festival is such a strong part of the community. It’s one day to get everyone together and enjoy it.”