Sunday, July 3, 2022

Hometown Hero: Susan Gillis

For 20 years Susan Gillis has sifted through a collection of artifacts and photographs and documents to build a working catalogue of Boca Raton history. In November, the new Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum opened, a touchpoint in Gillis’ long career as a museum curator, and a capstone to a life dedicated to preserving and exploring the past. Gillis is a native Floridian, growing up in Miami and Hollywood; she came to her job in Boca in 2002 from the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. Her work was cut out; as she notes, her predecessor did not even have a typewriter. Two decades and one museum transformation later, she is still keeping our past alive.

Accomplishments she is proud of:

One of the most important accomplishments I have contributed is we have catalogued our collection. Also, our collections have grown tremendously … We are interested in every bit of history, from the pre-Columbian era to the present. We collect a lot of fairly contemporary items—yesterday is history. I have a lot of experience as a history museum curator, and I like to think I brought that to this job, that I have the hindsight of knowing what we will want to retain for the future …

I’ve also written a couple of books using our collections, of which I am proud: Boomtime Boca, a photographic history, started when the Blackstone Group took over [The Boca Raton] hotel back in 2004. The other one is called Palm Beach County During WWII, another photo history we did with the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Favorite artifact:

One of the most fascinating humble objects in the collection is this can of Maxwell House coffee; I’m in love with that. Number one, it’s still good to the last drop. It was also an eyewitness to WWII. Most people don’t know there were German U-boats offshore; it’s important in world history. This coffee can would have come off one of our merchant ships—not a military ship—that was torpedoed offshore here by a U-boat. They were trying to destroy the supply line to Europe in 1942. Local citizens could hear explosions and see smoke; sometimes bodies would come ashore. In this case, it was cargo. And then there are the IBM PCs, which I call my babies. … very near and dear to me… because the PC changed the world … and that started here. How cool is that?

Why saving history is important:

Look at how much we’ve changed in a little more than 100 years. This untamed wilderness with mosquitos and rattlesnakes everywhere and panthers and bobcats—how dramatically altered we’ve become in such a short time. We’re a metaphor for that … I strongly believe sharing history builds a sense of community … Learning about the history of a very specific area gives you a sense of place. You know how things came to be, and I think it gives you a better way to envision going forward.

This story is from the May/June 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Marie Speed
Marie Speed is group editor of all JES publications, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Worth Avenue, Mizner’s Dream and the annual publication for the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees editorial operations of the company’s Salt Lake City magazines. Her community involvement has ranged from work with the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce to a longtime board member position at Caridad Center. She is also on the George Snow Scholarship Fund review committee. She is a past officer of the Florida Magazine Association and a member of Class XVII of Leadership Florida. In her spare time, Marie enjoys South Florida’s natural world through hiking and kayaking, and she is an avid reader and an enthusiastic cook.

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