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A ‘History Hero’: Shepherdstown resident awarded state honor

By Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff | Mar 12, 2021

From right, former Historic Shepherdstown Commission president Eleanor Finn accepts a check from Lisa Welch, of the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation, intended to help maintain the walls of Shepherdstown Cemetery several years ago. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — On March 1, the 25th Annual West Virginia History Day, 17 West Virginia residents were named West Virginia History Heroes, including Shepherdstown resident Eleanor Finn.

Finn was nominated for the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History award by Historic Shepherdstown Commission President Donna Bertazzoni, in recognition of her work as former HSC president (2011-2017) and as current docent coordinator.

“I think that there are two reasons my nomination was approved,” Finn said. “One is the fact that I put together the first five-year plan that the commission ever had. I’m happy to see that they’re still using that, and that the goals are still being considered. The second thing, that was really important to me, was to put together the first exhibit that focused on African Americans in Shepherdstown. That exhibit is a permanent part of the Historic Shepherdstown Museum.”

Prior to retiring and moving to Shepherdstown, Finn served as a high school social studies teacher, followed by a career in finance after completing her M.B.A. That background led to her bringing a much-needed level of organization to the HSC, as well as a more inclusive mindset to the HSC’s museum in the Entler Hotel.

According to Finn, her exhibit on Shepherdstown’s Black baseball team, which was active from the 1930s through the 1970s, will eventually be expanded in the museum.

“We’re working on phase two of the exhibit, on Civil Rights and history since the 1960s, and where we still need to go,” Finn said, mentioning she hopes the exhibit will encourage more Black residents to visit the Historic Shepherdstown Museum and become enmeshed in town life. “There are two African American communities in Shepherdstown, one on either end of town — Little Philadelphia on the west and Angel Hill on the east. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to participate in a lot of things in town, and I was hoping that setting up this exhibit might get more African Americans to come to the museum.”

In addition to the exhibit, Finn oversaw the collection of oral histories from many of Shepherdstown’s elderly Black residents. While some of those residents have since passed away, their knowledge is now a permanent fixture in the HSC archives.

In her work as HSC president, Finn oversaw the preservation of the Shepherdstown Cemetery, including leading the organization to agree to take over the cemetery’s care, after it was deeded to the Corporation of Shepherdstown.

Finn views her five-year plan as absolutely essential to the nonprofit organization’s future success.

“Everything had been a kind of a free-for-all, there wasn’t a plan. You can’t run an institution like this without a plan!” Finn said. “The buildings are really old, so you’ve got to do maintenance, you’ve got to do this, that and the other.”

Traditionally, the West Virginia History Heroes presentation is conducted in Charles Town, but due to the COVID-19 Pandemic it was moved onto YouTube this year. Honorees were mailed certificates and blue ribbons, in recognition of their designation.

While Finn said she never set out to gain any attention from her leadership and research, she hopes her work will leave an impact on those who follow in her footsteps.

“I think the idea of inclusion of all of the people in the town is the legacy I’d like to leave behind,” Finn said.