‘The West is alive here’: Former Reagan Library curator brings her expertise to Prescott’s western heritage
Marilyn Fisher may have started out as an East Coast girl, but it didn’t take her long to realize that the West was her destiny.
From her first career milestone of illustrating the archaeological artifacts of a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest, to years of preserving the 1980s’ “Western White House,” to her current volunteer role curating Prescott’s western heritage, Fisher’s adult life has had a decidedly western theme.
“I went to school back east,” said Fisher, a Massachusetts native who earned her early college degrees at Massachusetts Framingham State College and Harvard University/Peabody Museum of Ethnology.
At the first opportunity, though, Fisher headed west. With her bachelor’s degree and archaeological illustration certification in hand, Fisher took the advice of a mentor to check out a career opportunity at the University of Washington in Seattle.
She ended up with a job as illustrator of artifacts of the Nez Perce Tribe of the Pacific Northwest.
She never looked back from there, moving on to a series of West Coast jobs, including work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, and the Rancho del Cielo, Reagan’s ranch home near Santa Barbara.
Then, after Fisher and her husband, Lee, retired in Prescott recently, Fisher volunteered to help with the Western Heritage Center on Prescott’s Whiskey Row – assistance that has been invaluable for the fledgling center.
“Marilyn’s contribution to the Western Heritage Center’s exhibits and overall appearance has been exceptional,” the center’s founder and president, Dennis Gallagher, said. “I don’t know what I would have done without her dedication and her attention to detail regarding items that have been loaned or donated to the center.”
That expertise was honed over years of dealing with presidential artifacts and displays.
REAGAN LIBRARY YEARS
After a time at the University of Washington and then at the Natural History Museum of LA County, Fisher moved in 1992 to a position as curator, presidential historian and collections manager at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Among her first tasks: Processing 400 wooden crates full of gifts given to Reagan during his presidency from 1981 to 1989.
When she saw the crates, which contained thousands of items, Fisher remembers being energized.
She saw it as a privilege to go through the items, which included everything from pieces of fine art, to cowboy boots and belt buckles, to firearms and jewel-encrusted daggers, to silver tea sets, to handmade items such as potholders.
Fisher remembers Reagan being amazed that people had taken the time to create such wonderful items for him.
Items given to presidents during their terms are not considered the personal property of the presidents, Fisher said, adding, “It is considered the property of people of the United States,” she said.
Since about the 1940s, presidential libraries have been created to house individual presidents’ gifts, papers and artifacts.
During her years working at the Reagan library, Fisher collaborated closely with the former president. “I loved being in his presence,” she said. “He was such a kind and thoughtful person, and he had a great sense of humor.”
She remembers one meeting with the president and an entourage of staffers, when she momentarily forgot the protocol on exiting a room: Should she leave first, or allow the president to precede her?
Sensing her discomfort, Reagan merely smiled and said, “Ladies first,” Fisher said. “He would make you feel completely comfortable and at ease.”
PRESERVING THE ‘WESTERN WHITE HOUSE’
After nearly a decade at the presidential library, Fisher was approached about another project – to help preserve Rancho del Cielo, Reagan’s rugged California ranch that served as the “Western White House” during his years in office.
“It was an adventurous decision,” she said of her move from the Reagan Library to the Rancho del Cielo. “But I knew the library was well on its way, and I saw the need to tell the story of Reagan’s western life.”
While the presidential library is full of history about the president’s eight years in office – focusing on heads of state and foreign policy – Fisher said, “It didn’t tell the story of Reagan the rancher.”
Like Fisher, Reagan was a West Coast transplant, having grown up in Illinois before moving to California. And like her, western history was a favorite topic for the president.
“Reagan loved the history of the West – that people make things with their hands,” Fisher said. That was one of the things he loved best about Rancho del Cielo, she said – that the old adobe house had been handcrafted by the previous owner.
“My time at the ranch was very precious, because it was the ‘Western White House,’” Fisher said. “It was a spiritual place for Reagan. That humble little abode was the place he would find the most strength. The humility of it reflected the humility of the man.”
Fisher worked from 2000 to 2018 as the head curator of collections and preservation at the Reagan Ranch Presidential Home site, before retiring to her home in the Williamson Valley area of Prescott.
WESTERN HERITAGE CENTER
As retirement approached, Fisher said she and her husband looked extensively around the West for a retirement home. They chose Prescott, in part, because of its rich history.
“Being a historian, the history was very important to me,’” she said. “I love that Prescottonians take such ownership of their history.”
On a walk along Whiskey Row, Fisher spotted the Western Heritage Center, which was then in the hectic days before the successful May 2019 opening. She offered her help, and has since worked as volunteer curator and collections manager.
She has been impressed with the multi-layered history of the region, which includes everything from mining and ranching to movies and law enforcement.
“Prescott handles public spaces very well,” Fisher said. “The West is alive here. It all comes together here.”