History in the making

HistoryAlumna ensures Capitol Hill legacies won’t be lost

To say Katie Delacenserie is a U.S. political history buff is putting it mildly.

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Working in Edward Kennedy’s “hideaway” office in the U.S. Capitol, Katie Delacenserie catalogs a clock belonging to the late Massachusetts senator.

So it’s not surprising that in spring 2009 she took a keen interest in an opportunity to work as an archival intern in the office of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. Delacenserie, a 2008 UW-Eau Claire public history graduate, was pursuing her master’s degree in library science at the University of Maryland. She saw an advertisement for the intern position on her school’s listserv and wasted no time replying to the Kennedy staffer who had placed the ad.

“I immediately jumped at the opportunity to work with such a historic and prominent collection, contacting her with my résumé within minutes,” Delacenserie said. “I got the spot after a few phone interviews.”

She never met Kennedy, who, by the time she joined his staff, was battling brain cancer and living and working full time at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. The senator died Aug. 25, 2009. But Delacenserie still was awestruck working in such close proximity to those who had worked alongside Kennedy for many years.

“Coming from a background where my main interest is political history, you don’t get much closer to understanding the legislative process and how Washington operates than working with the records of Ted Kennedy and his staff, who loved the game and played politics so well,” she said. “A highlight would definitely be working each day in the same room with his legislative director, Carey Parker, who had been with the senator since 1969 and whose input was on every piece of legislation the senator worked on.”

From June through October 2009, Delacenserie — the first archivist ever to work on Kennedy’s staff — said she focused on gathering and preserving 47 years’ worth of history that accumulated over his career in the Senate. She, along with other interns she supervised, was responsible for several tasks. She helped create an officewide records management policy; cataloged all memorabilia in the senator’s office and his hideaway office in the Capitol, as well as items from the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which Kennedy chaired; created a database of all the senator’s files housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston; inventoried all of Kennedy’s records stored in the attic of the Russell Senate Office Building; and, after the senator died, assisted in closing his office.

Seeing the thousands of people who lined up to see the motorcade pass and realizing my work to preserve the senator’s legacy was tied to the history of the nation, it still gives me chills when I think about it.  — Katie Delacenserie

Closing the senator’s office, Delacenserie said, included packing up all of its contents and preparing more than 1,400 boxes of records to be shipped to Boston, where eventually they will be housed in the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate — a facility currently in the planning stages.

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Katie Delacenserie, far right, and members of the Kennedy family lined up on the Capitol steps and sang “America the Beautiful” during Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral procession last summer.

Some specific experiences stand out for Delacenserie from her time working with Kennedy’s staff. While inventorying records in the Russell building attic, she came across a draft of the senator’s 2008 Democratic convention speech, complete with his handwritten edits.

“Moments like that just made me stop and think how great my job was,” Delacenserie said.

She recalled some of the more interesting pieces she came across while cataloging Kennedy’s memorabilia: a ship model his brother Robert gave him on his wedding day, chairs that had belonged to his brother John, a cartoon collection in his bathroom and a table made from pieces of his boat, the Mya.

Delacenserie also attended Sen. Kennedy’s funeral. She recalled the “intense experience” of standing on the steps of the Capitol with current and former members of the senator’s staff and members of the Kennedy family, singing “America the Beautiful.”

“Seeing the thousands of people who lined up to see the motorcade pass and realizing my work to preserve the senator’s legacy was tied to the history of the nation, it still gives me chills when I think about it,” she said.

Delacenserie, who in May received her library science master’s degree with an emphasis in archival administration, also worked as an intern with the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions during graduate school. She previously had worked with the committee’s archivist during her time on Kennedy’s staff, and she had the opportunity during her second internship to work with that same archivist on projects she completed for course credit.

“The work of a committee archivist is much more stable and steady than that of an archivist on a personal staff, and I learned the different types of documents committees work with and how to archive them,” she said. “I took part in arranging and describing the records of the committee before transferring them to the National Archives.”

While an intern with the committee, Delacenserie also got to do what she calls “archival archeology,” uncovering maps that had been left in a crawl space in the attic that dated back to the 1920s.

“Those were just recently transferred to the Library of Congress map division, and to see that was definitely a highlight of my job,” she said.

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At work in the Senate historian’s office.

Delacenserie said her undergraduate education at UW-Eau Claire gave her the foundation necessary to succeed in graduate school and in her chosen career field. She decided to attend UW-Eau Claire because of its public history program.

“I’ve had an interest in history and fascination with the past since I was young,” she said. “Museums, documentaries and historic homes always captured my attention, and I volunteered at the historical society in Green Bay when I was in high school.”

When it came time to select a college and a major, Delacenserie, who knew that teaching history was not the right fit for her, wasn’t sure how else she could pursue history as career.

“Once I learned of the public history program, I knew this was a field and an area that fit my interests and had multiple options for careers,” she said.

UW-Eau Claire experiences that stand out for Delacenserie include her time studying abroad at Harlaxton College in Great Britain.

“I learned and experienced more in those four months than almost any other time in my life,” she said.

Delacenserie also said she is grateful for UW-Eau Claire’s small class sizes and demanding academic programs.

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Performing data entry in the Russell Senate Office Building.

“Taking smaller classes really made the difference, and I felt I was able to get a richer education and a more enjoyable experience with academics,” she said. “I was able to talk with my professors more and was able to draw on their knowledge and experience more than if I went to a larger school.”

Delacenserie said UW-Eau Claire’s academic programs “not only gave me the foundation I needed to perform my job with my degree in history and apply theory that I learned to real-life situations, but the level of expectation that was demanded of me in my time as a student at UW-Eau Claire assisted me in working in a demanding environment like Capitol Hill.”

While a UW-Eau Claire student, Delacenserie, knowing she wanted to pursue a career as an archivist, obtained an internship at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. During that experience in Washington, D.C., she made the decision to apply for graduate school at the nearby University of Maryland after learning about its strong library science program.

“Washington, D.C., also has a large number of museums and archives, and I felt I could take advantage of the numerous sites and opportunities for employment,” she said.

Delacenserie now is the archivist for Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who will retire in January 2011. After that, she hopes to find continued employment on Capitol Hill, working either for another senator or with a legislative committee.

“Archivists and records managers embedded in congressional offices are essential components for preserving the history of Congress,” Delacenserie said. “They enjoy the unique position of being able to preserve the historical record as it’s being written.”

Spoken like a true U.S. political history buff.

Photos by Heather Moore, U.S. Senate Photo Historian