Since 1935, the Winona County Historical Society (WCHS) has been the leader in preservation efforts in the area. Throughout the last 77 years, dedicated historians and countless volunteers have contributed to the success of the society. And today, WCHS is the largest county historical society in the state, thanks to local efforts, among them those of a Winona couple dedicated to the history of the area.
At the yearly Heritage Dinner on Thursday, the society will honor Jim and Ruth Erickson with the Heritage Award for their outstanding work with the WCHS. This is the first time the society has chosen a couple to be honored. The Ericksons have devoted their lives to volunteerism and Winona’s historical preservation. It is this dedication and love of their town that has allowed them to stay busy long after retirement.
Jim and Ruth Erickson are lifelong Winona residents. Despite a brief stay in the Twin Cities, the Ericksons always remained loyal to their river town. In the early 1970s, the couple resettled in Winona and immersed themselves in the volunteer community.
While working at Winona State University, Jim, a biology professor, became involved with the adult continuing education program on campus. Through his work in the classroom, Jim and Ruth started the Learning Club on campus, a program dedicated to adult lifelong learning.
“We wanted to expand the project to the community and let people know that you don’t need an official connection to the university to want to learn,” Jim said. “I mean, why not learn for the fun of it? We’ve been offering this to the community through the university and that’s the way it still operates today.”
Ruth helped advance the Learning Club, too. She was also a dedicated employee at ORC and the Minnesota Job Service and Workforce Center.
When the couple retired in 1996, their passion for volunteerism only increased.
“We wanted to continue to be a part of making the community a better place,” Jim said. “Neither of us sat around for very long.”
Jim, a longtime WCHS member, began giving regular museum tours and is still involved in museum tours and step-on bus tours of Winona. He occasionally revisits the classroom by bringing history events to area schools.
Ruth is a reliable volunteer at society events and often helps with organization publications. She has excellent fundraising skills and has raised many dollars, which helped complete the WCHS’s recent addition.
Both have remained active members and volunteers with many organizations, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona Health Auxiliary, Sauer Home, Learning Club, Cedar Valley Lutheran Church, Commonweal Theater, the Great River Shakespeare Festival among them.
“There is so much character here in our old river town and we want to preserve that,” Jim said. “Winona is very important to us and it is one of the most beautiful places in the nation and we want everyone to know that.”
For the Ericksons, volunteering is not only a means to stay active, it is a way to give back to a community that has given so much to them, Jim said. Shock and disbelief were her first two feelings Ruth said, when she found out they were going to be honored at the Heritage Dinner.
“I had to ask why us,” Ruth said. “The historical society is our prime place so we felt pretty special. But we are just two of the many great representatives for Winona. We aren’t standouts but we feel so very honored.”
To be a part of the celebration, call 507-454-2723 or visit the WCHS at 160 Johnson St. Tickets are $25 per person and the event starts at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 20.