After close to 17 years as director of the El Campo Museum of Natural History, Cheri McGuirk will be retiring in the coming months.
Moving to Louise in 2003, McGuirk and husband Brian had been here for only a short while when she saw an advertisement in the El Campo Leader-News.
“When I saw the ad in the paper for museum director, I thought, ‘I know nothing about museums,”’ McGuirk said. “My husband said, ‘Just do it.’”
She applied, got the job and took charge in July 2004.
McGuirk loved visiting museums herself and realized she had lots to learn. She also knew nothing about taxidermy, which was a major component of the museum thanks to the late Dr. E.A. Weinheimer’s exotic animal mounts.
She started visiting other facilities to gather ideas to expand the kids area.
“The board really wanted to see the children’s center transformed into an activity area,” she said. “So I started visiting children’s museums ... I visited the one in Austin, San Antonio, New Braunfels and even Bay City. I took those big ideas and scaled them down. It was a slow process, but one thing about it, this community is generous.”
The first donation for an activity area for kids came from Beverly Russell who had taken her grandchildren there to visit. McGuirk had been sectioning off areas with the use of masking tape on the floor when Russell wondered what she was doing. Russell offered to sponsor an area.
“Beverly said ‘if you’ll put in a pet clinic, we will sponsor it,’” McGuirk said.
Others came forth to sponsor areas, like First State Bank donating funds for a teller’s booth.
“Once we started, it didn’t take long to get sponsors,” she said.
Throughout the years, if there was something that needed a sponsor, McGuirk would post it on social media and get a quick response. The most recent was finding a sponsor for the prairie dog.
Fundraising took on a new approach, too.
“In the past, the big galas raised funds ... they were absolutely gorgeous but time had passed for these,” McGuirk said.
Highlighting more family oriented events, McGuirk organized the Run Wild 5K Fun Run/Walk. Typically taking place the first of October, the board elected to hold it at a later date in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Held the later part of October, it was called the Halloween Hustle.
Expanding more on children’s activities, McGuirk added summer programming. The first was Animal Camp on Wednesdays. That has been an ongoing program since the very beginning.
“I always had a good response for Animal Camp,” she said.
McGuirk would introduce a different animal each time, while also providing a tour of the facility, some information about the critter and a craft, also highlighting the animal being studied.
Next came a cooking class. Through the urging of a parent, “Chefs was born,” McGuirk said. “We have cooked with kids for a number of years.”
Using basic small appliances, from a griddle, toaster oven, waffle iron and blender, kids cooked a variety of entrees for breakfast, lunch and snacks.
“We’ve cooked quite a few items over the years,” she said. “My favorite I think is the pancakes. It did not matter what flavor... chocolate chips, birthday pancakes, out of a cake mix.”
McGuirk found additional uses for a waffle iron, too.
“We made brownies in a waffle iron,” she said. “Our brownies are pretty darn yummy in a waffle iron.”
Miniature corn dogs were also a favorite to make in a waffle iron.
“I wanted kids to look at an ingredient ... it doesn’t always have to be a traditional food,” she said. “They got to try different things.”
Participants had to at least try the food. They didn’t have to eat it all, but they had to do a taste test. One mother enrolled her son in Chefs in hopes he would be less of a picky eater.
Next, Terrific Thursdays was added. This is a free program that involves a craft. Then Explorer Camp was introduced.
“Explorer Camp introduced kids to things they might not do at home ... string art, building a bird house,”she said.
Other programs were implemented, some of which continue and some that do not. Tea With the Princesses, Night at the Museum, Treasure Hunt with Pirates, Petite Picassos, painting parties for adults and children’s parties. The quilt exhibit has been ongoing and will return in mid September to October. Also, Pictures with Santa is another event. Plans are to host a Spring photo session with a live bunny.
“In my tenure, I started hosting birthday parties,” she said. “We would do a craft activity ... I try to stay with the theme of the party.”
The next planned event in March will be a 1/2 K Beer Run.
“It’s going to be lots of fun,” she said. “We’re going to have food trucks, beer stations, DJs.”
The biggest challenge for McGuirk is turning down a donation.
“It’s hard to turn down someone’s treasure, but if it doesn’t fit our mission statement or my plan, it’s a no go,” McGuirk said.
Another large task is tending to the animal mounts.
“It’s a large task,” she said. She hires a taxidermist to do a thorough cleaning once a year.
“It’s quite a task,” she said. “Every year they have to be cleaned, wiped down and inspected.”
Now that her time has almost come to a close, McGuirk says she won’t be a stranger to the museum.
“I plan to volunteer here at the museum,” she said. “The Sea Shell room is in progress ... I’m determined to finish that.”
There are other areas in need of painting and she plans on completing those tasks. And of course, she will be just a phone call away for the incoming director should they have any questions.
Other than volunteer at the museum, McGuirk plans to go on that trip she’s been wanting to go on, participate in Senior Trek trips, go see the grandchildren who live in another state and visit her almost 95-year-old mom in El Paso where she grew up.