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Rhonda Dass, Ph.D., began work Feb. 19 as the new regional site manager for Fort Selden Historic Site in Radium Springs and the Taylor-Mesilla Historic Property in Mesilla.
“I love Fort Selden,” Dass said in a Bulletin interview. “There are so many layers of stories. It’s a unique spot in the history of New Mexico.”
Dass has already met J. Paul Taylor, 101, a retired educator, former state representative and community icon, and visited his home on the Mesilla Plaza, which is the centerpiece of the Taylor-Mesilla property.
“The house is incredible,” Dass said.
“It’s so important to preserve that,” she said, including the stories and memories of Taylor, who was born in Chamberino in August 1920, the Taylor family collection and its history, Dass said. “What a unique gift.”
The future opening of the Taylor-Mesilla site “will require reliance on all her expertise,” New Mexico Historic Sites (NMHS) Executive Director Patrick Moore said about Dass. NMHS, established in1931, is a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs (NMDCA).
Dass comes to New Mexico from Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSUM). She was staying with family members in Truth or Consequences in early March, while searching for her “forever home” in the area of the two historic sites she will manage.
A native of Biwabik, in northern Minnesota, Dass studied art and art history at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, focusing on oil painting, weaving and museum practices, and received an MA in folklore with a focus on museum studies, and dual PhDs in folklore and American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. In March, she will complete a second MA based on a thesis that is “all about clouds,” Dass said. An exhibit at MSUM will combine drawing and painting in a series called “Tangible Transformations.” Dass also has two bachelor’s degrees.
Dass joined the MSUM faculty in 2008 as an anthropology professor, teaching courses on research methods, body art, museology and a very well received course titled “Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies: The Folklore of Fear.” She is the founder and first director of the American Indigenous Studies program and the Museum Studies program at MSUM.
At age 16, Dass served an internship at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota, and later worked in the hospitality industry.
Dass said her career choices were strongly influenced by her father, who was an electrician in the iron mines of northern Minnesota.
“He was the one that flipped the switch” to close at least three of the mines, she said. He was also a folklorist who recorded a lot of oral history, Dass said.
As Fort Selden and Taylor-Mesilla sites manager, NMDCA said Dass will focus on cultural resource management, including preservation of the sites and collections management; interpretative programming, including education and public programs, special events and exhibits; fund and partnership development, including achieving fundraising goals and strategic plans; and marketing to increase access and visitation while building a high-level public profile and awareness.
As Fort Selden and Taylor-Mesilla site manager, Dass replaces Leslie Bergloff, who retired.
Visit nmhistoricsites.org/fort-selden and nmhistoricsites.org/taylor-mesilla.