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Meet the Volunteers Who Bring PAH’s History to Life

Curator and lead archivist Stacey C. Peeples shows how PAH’s long history echoes into the present through tours, exhibitions, and most recently, the Franklin-Bond Speaker Series, all with the help of her volunteers.

Volunteers across Penn Medicine choose to give back to the community by welcoming visitors, visiting patients, comforting families, supporting staff, and even training their four-legged friends to provide pet therapy — but a handful of them are doing something a bit different.

The volunteers who serve as tour guides for Pennsylvania Hospital’s historic Pine Building or who work in the archives play an essential role in protecting and promoting the hospital’s long, proud history. The guides provide a window to PAH’s past and help visitors understand the hospital’s invaluable role in spurring American medicine, while the volunteers who surround themselves with 268 years’ worth of documents and accessions help Stacey C. Peeples, MA, curator and lead archivist of the hospital’s historic collections, plan exhibitions and make information more accessible for staff and researchers.

“I’m incredibly lucky to work with several smart, interesting, and passionate individuals who didn’t want to spend their retirement playing bingo,” Peeples said. “They have diverse skill sets, and many have volunteered in other historic locations throughout the city, so they have a breadth of combined knowledge. Whether they’re sharing Pennsy’s history or helping me organize different projects, they’re valued members of the team, and I’m so appreciative of all they do.”

The Voracious Scholar

pah historical library books

Ask Donna Ostroff to describe her PAH experience, and her passion for history, enthusiasm for sharing stories, and love of “nit-picky, fiddly things” will come through in every word. You can’t help but leave the conversation feeling educated and energized.

In “a past life,” Ostroff was a nurse at Graduate Hospital taking an archivist course in her free time. As part of her coursework, she was required to visit a working archive, and PAH proved the perfect fit for her interests. Years later — 30 of which were spent living abroad — she returned, this time as a retired volunteer. Ostroff has done it all: logged ephemera, leafed through records for researchers interested in “the most esoteric stuff you can think of,” and hauled books down from the medical library’s shelves (“You cannot imagine the dust!”) to check their condition and update the library database.

For 10 years, she has also worked on-and-off on a massive undertaking: organizing admission records. After sorting each box chronologically with two other volunteers, she took the reins, logging nearly 19,000 records into a computer database. “There were masses of slips — names, dates of admission, tentative diagnoses, who was responsible for them if they died — but not every slip was complete,” she said. So now, she’s cross-checking the database with the detailed information written in the Board of Managers’ minutes. She’s made it to 1790.

“It’s detailed work that can make your eyes cross, but I love it,” Ostroff said. “I’ve read about slaves, prisoners of war, and Native Americans being treated at the hospital. I’ve learned about the foods they kept stocked, including barrels of lemons and limes for sailors with scurvy. There was even a news clipping talking about eggs and tomatoes being thrown at women when they started attending medical lectures.” Every week promises “fascinating, sometimes wonky stuff,” and PAH has proven the perfect place for Ostroff to dive into the past while seeing it echoed in the present.

The Odd Job Extraordinaire

pah historical library ephemera

Diana Capaldi and Donna Ostroff became fast friends when they bonded over their diverse backgrounds, their husbands’ friendship, and their shared experience growing up on farms in Nebraska. After they retired — Capaldi after 33 years as a Philadelphia teacher — they began volunteering together at a local art organization. When Ostroff discovered a new volunteer opportunity at PAH, Capaldi followed her lead, and they embarked on what has become a nearly 15-year-long journey in PAH’s historic collections.

While other volunteers have elected to take on long-term projects, Capaldi is more interested in jumping from one task to another. “I wasn’t interested in sitting at a computer all day,” she said. “I never had a desk job; as a teacher, I was always on the move.” Juggling a variety of odd jobs has kept her active and motivated. Whether she’s cataloguing stacks of documents from affiliate organizations or following up on inquiries from genealogists, Capaldi is a master of multi-tasking.

She’s found some similarities between managing energetic elementary students and wrangling out-of-place historical records, and she’s happy to be able to get absorbed in each project for a while “and just proceed with the work.” Years of diligent record-keeping during her teaching career also taught her to efficiently sort through information, and she has become Peeples’ go-to whenever a new project or last-minute request comes up.

“I cover many bases. I may be working on one thing for a little while, and then I’ll come the next week, and there’s a whole new track to try out,” Capaldi said. “I’m not a medical person, and this is so different from what I spent my life doing, but I really enjoy the work. My family was always interested in history — my mom wrote genealogy books — and this place is fascinating. And it’s funny how people’s lives intersect. I met Donna, then Stacey, and more than a decade later, I’m still here.”

The Social Butterfly

pah pine building great court

Since 2011, Sandy Kirch has been volunteering in Telly’s Gift Shop and leading tours of the historic Pine Building — roles she never expected to find herself in. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Kirch was visiting Franklin Square when someone asked her a question about the current exhibit. Peeples, who happened to be nearby, overheard the conversation, came over with a business card in hand, and told her she’d make an excellent tour guide. After mulling over the serendipitous moment and realizing that retirement was far too boring for her, Kirch, a former financial advisor, decided to start a new journey at PAH.

“The hospital is around the corner from where I live, but I never thought to go there for any reason other than seeing a doctor. But the history is fascinating, and it’s been a lot of fun sharing it with visitors,” she said. “People come from all over the country and the world! School groups, students from overseas, graduates from the nursing school back for a reunion — they’re all really interesting people.”

Kirch notes that it’s rare to have a group that isn’t attentive or excited to learn. She loves when visitors ask questions, and she often injects humor into her tours to keep them light and fun. If someone insists, for example, that patients would never have chosen to be knocked out with a mallet before anesthesia was introduced, she simply quips, “Well, I was there.”

For Kirch, volunteering has been a great way to meet new people and give back to the community. She’s especially glad to have chosen to spend her time at PAH. “I don’t work here, but everyone makes me feel like I’m part of the hospital family,” she said. “During every tour, someone will stop me to say hello. In that way, I’m not just giving people information about the hospital’s past. They’re also getting a look at the hospital today and how it’s like a big family.”

The Medically-Minded Organizer

pah historical library ben franklin

After Louise Clark retired four years ago, she was already in the perfect position to transition to volunteer work. For 18 years, she worked as the executive assistant to Garry Scheib, former COO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and former CEO of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, so PAH and Peeples were already on her radar.

“I became attached to health care and missed it. Volunteering in the historic collections gives me a way to still participate in the health system without the obligations of a job, and I get the chance to try new and different things,” Clark said. “Plus, Stacey doesn’t have staff, so supporting her has definitely been a meaningful use of my time.”

Like Capaldi, Clark has taken a generalized approach to her projects. One week, she might make some headway cataloguing historical items and relocating them to newer boxes, while the next week might be spent responding to a request to find a document buried deep in the archives. Her familiarity with the health system’s organization has proven especially useful in these cases, as she has a better idea of where to start digging. She particularly likes unearthing information about former patients that family members are searching for centuries later. But nothing has beaten her favorite volunteer moment: stumbling upon a handwritten note signed by PAH founder Benjamin Franklin.

“Some tasks might sound sort of mundane, but this place is a treasure,” Clark said. “As I move from one project to the next, I’m reading through documents and learning about the origins of American medicine, Benjamin Rush and PAH’s early mental health care, the hospital’s role in World War II…. I really enjoy history, so this has been very fulfilling. I know a lot of folks never find the time to visit the historic collections, but take it from a former Penn employee — it’s worth it!”

The Local Historian

pah historical library

When Walker Brown moved to Philadelphia 25 years ago, much of the appeal was the city’s rich, immersive history. He’d always been interested in reading about fascinating people, places, and events — “not that I’m an expert or anything!” — and he quickly dove headfirst into Philly’s political, economic, architectural, educational, and medical histories.

After retiring from marketing and plastic packaging sales, Brown decided to flex his history buff muscles while giving back to the community, starting as a volunteer guide at the Independence Seaport Museum. He led visitors through the Becuna submarine and Olympia cruiser, but noticed that the field trip groups that frequented the museum often struggled to engage with the program. “Kids don’t really know what war is like,” he said. “I could talk and talk, but it can be hard to share that history in a way they’ll appreciate. So I found myself drifting over to adult education instead.”

In addition to leading weekly tours through City Hall, Brown has volunteered at PAH for two years. His secret to ensuring a good tour is quickly establishing a personal relationship with the group — “you’ve got 30 seconds, or you’re a goner” — and utilizing amusing stories that bring history off the page and into life. The original pharmacy, medical library, and surgical amphitheater are his favorite stops, and his infectious enthusiasm ensures they’re crowd-pleasers. Brown also shared these locations with visitors through a two-stop Hidden City Philadelphia tour that traced the city’s medical history, linking the hospital with the early medical texts printed along Publishers Row (now Washington Square).

“It’s fulfilling to teach people something new — to share the good and the bad and to see they’re interested in learning more,” he said. “When I give a quick rundown of what we’re going to see and talk about at the beginning of a tour, I’m always met with blank stares; it’s a lot of information. But by the end, everyone’s smiling, and it’s really rewarding.”

The Spellbinding Storyteller

pah surgical amphitheater

David Soltesz is the newest addition to the PAH volunteer team, but he already adores the hospital, and especially with the surgical amphitheater. Falling in love with local history has been a recent phenomenon for Soltesz. After retiring from a 30-year career with the Burlington County Bridge Commission, the New Jersey native finally decided to cross the river himself and move to Philadelphia.

“I went from having zero interest in Philly to going head over heels. I joined every organization I could — the Eastern State Penitentiary, the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, the art and cultural alliances, and a million others — to learn more about the city,” he said. “I never cared about American history growing up, but now I’m a guide at the country’s first hospital, a Saturday docent at the Hill-Physick House, and hope to lead tours of my own someday. All I intended to do was downsize!”

Eager to keep his mind and body active while retired, Soltesz quickly recognized that volunteering as a tour guide was the perfect role. Even with only a few months under his belt, Soltesz has proven himself a natural storyteller and dynamic entertainer. Despite being a self-described bibliophile, he strives to show visitors that PAH’s history isn’t confined to the thousands of pages in the medical library; it’s a “living history.” He understands that some groups are there to learn while others just want to be entertained, so he keeps the vibe as “chatty” as he can while still immersing them in stories of the hospital’s early days.

“It’s really intellectually satisfying work. I spent 30 years as a toll collector and bridge operator, which was important work, but I feel privileged to now be able to sink my mind into such a historically heady place,” Soltesz said. “I’m honored to help deliver the hospital’s sometimes wild and exciting stories. It’s a whole new chapter for me, if you will.”

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