Jean Chesley, historian in Goodhue County

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 1, 2010 - 9:28 PM

The career preservationist was instrumental in expanding the state's oldest historical society.

The Goodhue County History Museum resided in a basement room at the county courthouse in Red Wing when Jean Chesley was named president of the local historical society in 1966.

When family, friends and colleagues gather Tuesday for her funeral, Minnesota Historical Society Director Nina Archabal will be among those to remember her for more than four decades of service that helped create one of the state's leading local venues of historical preservation.

"Jean started me on my way to work in state and local history," Archabal said. "She greeted me with the same warmth that she extended to anybody who crossed her path and gave me a feeling for this work that continues today."

Chesley, who worked intensely on Goodhue County museum projects almost up until the time of her death last week at age 93, was an elite organization builder cut from post-World War II mores of community volunteerism and teamwork, said Chuck Richardson, a Red Wing attorney.

"She was a first-rate cultural institution administrator and educator,'' Richardson said. "She was a very good friend and I'm going to miss her.''

Under Chesley, Minnesota's oldest county historical society purchased its own museum space in 1969 and expanded greatly in 1989 after winning state and county support for a multimillion- dollar renovation project.

"She fostered personal relationships and had a great belief in the preservation and interpretation of local history,'' Richardson said.

Chesley was on the governing board of the Minnesota Historical Society from 1970 to 1992, serving for 15 years as a vice president. She was influential in directing grant money to local preservation groups throughout the state and also served as a trustee of the Science Museum of Minnesota from 1972 to 1980.

One of her three children, Gretchen Chesley Lang of St. Paul, said her mother was a lifelong naturalist who loved geology, astronomy and all aspects of the natural world. She remembers nature walks as a child that were filled with her mother's exuberance over insect collecting.

The last exhibit at the county museum that her mother worked on dealt with one of her deep interests -- American Indian prehistory. The archeological exhibit covers six or seven prehistoric villages from the region.

Her father, Alexander P. Anderson, invented puffed wheat and puffed rice and sold the process to Quaker Oats. Jean Chelsey was born in Chicago in 1916 and moved at age 1 with her mother and father to Red Wing, where they built Tower View Farm. The family estate is now a center for visiting artists and scholars.

Chesley received a bachelor's degree in zoology from Carleton College in 1937. She married Frank Gunsaulus Chesley in 1938 and they moved to Boston for his graduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They returned to Red Wing in 1945, where they started a company along with two of Frank's MIT classmates. Central Research Laboratories still exists today as a maker of remote-controlled handling equipment for radioactive material and other substances.

Before Frank Chesley died in 1997, the couple enjoyed international travel and were "quite a charismatic pair,'' said granddaughter Ursula Lang of Minneapolis.

Jean Chesley is survived by her three children, Gretchen; Margaret Chesley of Bay City, Wis.; Paul Chesley of Honolulu; three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A funeral will be held Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the Mahn Family Funeral Home on Plum Street in Red Wing. Visitation is at 10 a.m. A reception will be held in the afternoon at the Anderson Center from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213

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