2012-03-23 / People


City historian is on right path
By Kristy Wagner Staff Writer

Kathryn DiPhillippo Kathryn DiPhillippo Most South Portland residents may know Kathryn DiPhilippo from reading her column in the South Portland- Cape Elizabeth Sentry, where she shares historical stories about the community. Some may know her as an author and some may know her as a fellow South Portland parent. Primarily, though, DiPhilippo is a historian.

“I feel very strongly about writing down what you know,” DiPhilippo said. “It’s one of the reasons why I do the column in the paper. I feel strongly that if you go around and have all this knowledge in your head, that’s great while you’re alive, but if it’s not recorded then there’s no preservation.”

Such convictions are what drove DiPhilippo to become the historian and executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. When she graduated with a business degree from the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business and Economics, DiPhilippo dove right into a career in credit management. She was vice president of credit services at Seafax, Inc. in Portland for seven years and then the assistant vice president and commercial loan underwriter for Key Bank for one year before becoming a credit manager.

“I did a good job (as a credit manager and consultant), but like a lot of jobs like that, you’re looking out for the company’s bottom line,” said DiPhilippo, who has lived in South Portland most of her life.

DiPhilippo left her work as a credit manager to raise her children. When her youngest approached the age to begin attending school, DiPhilippo wondered what she should do next.

“I decided, ‘Well, I am going to write a book,’” she said.

She pitched a book to Arcadia Publishing, one of the leading local history publishers in the United States. The publisher gave her a contract, but DiPhilippo said the book they wanted her to write was not what she had hoped to create for her community.

“As I was preparing my application to author one of (Arcadia’s) books, one of the interviews I went on was with John Palanza, who ran Uncle Andy’s all those years,” DiPhilippo said. Uncle Andy’s is now a cafe in Knightville.

“I found him absolutely fascinating. He had such a wonderful story to tell and you could tell even though he had long since retired he still had strong feelings about the business,” she said.

DiPhilippo decided she wanted to write stories like Palanza’s instead of writing captions under historical pictures, as Arcadia wanted her to do.

“I declined (Arcadia’s contract) and decided to write my own book and I took just one chapter of the original book and did my whole book on stores (in South Portland),” DiPhilippo said with a triumphant smile.

“They were all food-related stores. Everyone thought I was crazy,” she said.

DiPhilippo went around the community with her infant son in tow and interviewed people. She gathered stories and information on more than 800 South Portland stores dating from 1900 through 2000. She self-published the book titled, “South Portland: A Nostalgic Look at Our Neighborhood Stores.”

“Around the time I was doing the interviewing I had joined the historical society,” DiPhilippo said.

When she first joined the society in 2004 DiPhilippo said she asked for an application and they told her they didn’t have one. She then asked for an informational brochure and they didn’t have one of those either.

“I said, ‘I tell you what, I will join the historical society and I will make you a brochure,’” DiPhilippo said. “I drew up a rudimentary brochure and I joined the board of directors around the same time I did that.”

DiPhilippo said the whole process, writing the book to joining the board of directors at South Portland Historical Society, was “an interesting experience.”

“I am a big believer in trying to follow the path you were intended to follow,” DiPhilippo said. “For some that path maybe a credit manager, but maybe I wanted to do something a little more meaningful to me personally. I feel blessed, I really do.”

DiPhilippo currently owns an independent book publishing company on Highland Avenue in South Portland called Barren Hill Books. Her book about South Portland stores was the first publication for the independent publishing company. She currently has several book projects in the works for the historical society, which she not only publishes, but she writes and edits as well.

“I love doing books,” DiPhilippo said.

She named the publisher Barren Hill Books because the location on Highland Avenue was known as Barren Hill Road at the turn of the 20th century.

Since 2004, DiPhilippo has been a part of innovative changes and decision making at the historical society.

“We used to have a building in Thornton Heights,” she said. “When you look back at the history of the historical society it was always in facilities that were not designed to be a museum.”

The original building at Thornton Heights had no heat, no air conditioning, and no locks on the windows.

“You cannot preserve history when you’re not taking care of your things,” DiPhilippo said.

She said around that time the new board of directors at the society wanted to change and expand. The original South Portland Historical Society formed in the 1960s.

“We’re very lucky that they started back in ’60s amassing this collection, but a lot of people wanted to become a more traditional historical society by taking preservation more seriously,” DiPhilippo said.

She said everyone agreed that the society was not doing its best by the collection. DiPhilippo said the city of South Portland was always helpful in finding various housing for the society, but with no money the organization always ended up with a temporary home.

“The best way to ensure the future of the society and future of the collections and to make sure the city history would be preserved was to go out on our own,” DiPhilippo said.

The historian helped the society find a historical building in Ferry Village that was owned by Portland Pipe Line Corp. Eventually DiPhilippo and the rest of the board managed to obtain the building, called the Cushing Point House, and moved it to 55 Bug Light Road in South Portland across from Bug Light Park and the lighthouse.

“I am such a believer that this as all meant to be — this path that we ended up going down,” DiPhilippo said.

She called local companies to ask them for help in renovating the building after they had the brick construction cut off its foundation and moved to Bug Light Park. The result of her efforts, along with the rest of the historical society members, is an almost new looking structure with a fireplace, walkway and new porch.

DiPhilippo has also put in a huge effort in recruiting new members for the historical society.

“We had 25 members in 2004 and now we have more than 500 members,” she said.

DiPhilippo maintains a Facebook page for the society and puts feelers out to the public when she seeks historical information she cannot find in archival searches and other resources.

“To me this is a community organization. This isn’t about any one person, this is about an organization we are all a part of,” DiPhilippo said.

Staff Writer Kristy Wagner can be reached at 282-4337, ext. 219.

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