Wisecracking comedian Groucho Marx once bought a Studebaker from an Everett dealership. In the 1920s, the Paddock and Fowler car business was on the northeast corner of Wetmore Avenue and California Street. But don’t look for that in history books.
For that tidbit, and so much more, we owe thanks to a local history treasure — David Dilgard. With a wealth of knowledge gleaned from research and oral histories, Dilgard talked about the famous Marx brother during one of his popular Everett walking tours in 2008.
A history specialist at the Everett Public Library, the 71-year-old Dilgard retired March 22. It was 40 years after he and historian Margaret Riddle, who retired in 2008, launched their careers at the library and began to create its Northwest History Room.
“David retired exactly on his 40th anniversary,” said Eileen Simmons, Everett Public Library director. “Somebody on Facebook commented about Mister History going out the door. And that is true.”
Describing Dilgard as a storyteller and raconteur with a way of bringing history to life, Simmons wants people to know he didn’t want a high-profile retirement party. And although it’s the end of an era, she said the Northwest Room’s mission will continue in capable hands.
History specialist Lisa Labovitch, who has worked in the Northwest Room since 2012, was joined last week by Dilgard’s replacement, historian Mindy Van Wingen. Her face is familiar at the library. Van Wingen was first hired in 2008 after Riddle retired, but left in 2012.
“I know what a challenge it is to fill David’s big shoes,” Van Wingen said. “I really respect his 40 years of public service to this community. If you came to talk to him and didn’t have an appointment, he would make time for you and get engaged in your project. He kept inviting people back and back.”
Van Wingen has seen Dilgard draw crowds at his programs, and pull up a chair with someone doing research. “His ability to engage on any subject at any moment is amazing,” she said.
Labovitch and Van Wingen plan to build on the foundation he and Riddle built, with an emphasis on bringing more of the library’s collections online. Dilgard and Riddle recorded oral histories years ago, and Van Wingen said they may revive that work.
Dilgard did decades of research and gave talks on the Everett Massacre. The waterfront shootings, sparked by labor strife, left two deputies and at least five Industrial Workers of the World members dead on Nov. 5, 1916. Simmons, though, believes his favorite local subject may be theater history. “He wrote the definitive book on Everett theaters,” she said, referring to Dilgard’s 2001 “Mill Town Footlights.”
He attended Rosehill School in Mukilteo and Everett’s Cascade High School. Riddle said she met Dilgard in 1969 when he was an artist in Seattle. They first worked together on historical survey projects for the city of Everett. By 1977, they had been hired at the library for two positions funded by the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Mark Nesse, the library director before Simmons, kept them on as employees. “We were lucky,” Riddle said.
Jack and Larry O’Donnell, retired educators and Everett historians, both said Dilgard is a great friend and the undisputed authority on local history.
“There are several of us historians in Everett, and all of us would yield to David on interpretation and facts,” Jack O’Donnell said. “He’s just a brilliant man. And he’s really a trove of information on other things he’s interested in.” That expertise extends from architecture to Elvis Presley.
On March 23, Larry O’Donnell was emcee at an Everett Museum of History event honoring the library’s Northwest Room. Dilgard couldn’t attend, but Simmons, Labovitch, Van Wingen and Nesse were there.
“Like everybody else, I’m kind of in awe of David Dilgard. He’ll take a piece of local history and fit it into a bigger picture,” Larry O’Donnell said. He said Dilgard is equally adept at helping discover if someone’s ancestor was a shingle weaver or assisting someone with a Ph.D.
“He treated everybody, little kids to elderly adults, with great compassion and interest,” Larry O’Donnell said. “He is such a good person with a tremendous sense of humor. He’s witty and has this insatiable curiosity.”
Van Wingen recalled the day in 2008 when the Northwest Room had a call from Jim Shipman, a retired funeral home director who once managed Evergreen Cemetery. Shipman, now deceased, wanted to confirm that Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandmother, Rachel Wolfley, was buried in the Everett cemetery.
Along with Shipman, Jack and Larry O’Donnell got involved in the research, said Van Wingen, who remembered Dilgard zipping out to the cemetery. “He’s going to get out there and solve that riddle,” she said. “That’s David. He’s sort of this connector and organizer. Everybody wanted him involved in their project.”
Labovitch sees a paradox in Dilgard.
“He’s very good at entertaining a crowd, but he is very private,” she said. “It’s about the material, about the Northwest Room, not about him.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein @heraldnet.com.