Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When flood waters threatened the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg in January 1996, Michele M. Ridge quickly transformed herself from First Lady to First Curator of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Within hours, she assembled a team of National Guardsmen, weekend staff at the resi­dence, and specialists of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to move endangered works of art, artifacts, objects, and historic furnishings to safety from the first to the second floor of the resi­dence. Her professional training as a librarian and her personal sense of responsibility for the Commonwealth’s priceless heritage guided a timely and prudent response. Pennsylvania’s First Lady has a deep appreciation of the value of history. She also understands the value of how history and culture contribute to building healthy communities. She was well established as a cultural leader in Erie when she joined Governor Tom Ridge in their move to Harrisburg in 1995. Her commitment to preserving the Keystone State’s heritage bas been impressive, and she has emerged as an energetic advocate for libraries, museums, historical organizations, and cultural institutions.

Born in Erie, she is the daughter of Margaret Nagle and the late U.S. Army Major Howard Moore. Major Moore’s military career, which brought him assignments throughout the United States and overseas, intro­duced his young family to a wide variety of cultures. At an early age, Michele M. Ridge saw firsthand how a commu­nity is shaped by its own individual and particular history. It is the sweep of history that, from her childhood on, has aroused the First Lady’s curiosity and dedication, eventually carrying her to a highly accomplished professional career as well as devoted public service.

Ridge received her bachelor’s degree from Seton Hill College in Greensburg, Westmoreland County where she majored in European history. In 1971, she completed her master’s degree in library science at the University of Pittsburgh. Eight years later, she became director of the Erie County Library System, serving until 1995, when her hus­band’s election brought them to Harrisburg. In the capital city, one of her key contributions has been to inspire what she calls “the marriage of art and history” through exhibi­tions at the Governor’s Residence. Recent exhibits have included a landmark show featuring rare objects and artifacts drawn from the extensive holdings of Philadelphia collectors Meyer and Vivian Potamkin. which portray William Penn’s treaty with the Indians. The Governors Residence also showcased an important palette used by Paul Cézanne in conjunction with the blockbuster Cézanne retrospective mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

During her tenure with the library. Ridge became a powerful advocate for the cultural revitalization of Erie. She was widely known for her ability to garner support for cultural projects, such as Discovery Square, an educational center that includes an art museum, a children’s museum, and which serves as headquarters of the Erie County Historical Society. She was deeply involved, also, in the main library building’s move to its now well-known bay-front headquarters, and was executive producer of a monthly public radio program, “Library Medley.” Her community involvement also included the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwestern Pennsylvania, the Erie Junior League, and the Erie Art Museum.

As Michele Ridge used her knowledge of history and its effect upon people as individuals, she learned to understand the diverse yet powerful need of communities. These insights were translated into her widespread and varied efforts on behalf of all citizens of the Commonwealth when she became First Lady. Keenly interested in libraries and historic preservation, she authored the foreword to The Preservation Plan for Pennsylvania, and unveiled it at the State Capitol in March 1996. The plan, funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Commonwealth libraries of Pennsylvania, represents the first organized, coherent effort to protect and preserve the Commonwealth’s unique historical documents from the ravages of climate, natural disasters, poor storage conditions, and general neglect.

The First Lady’s numerous services and activities include her speaking engagements and educational conferences as honorary chair of the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, Pennsylvania Safe Kids Coalition, and the Governors Residence Preservation Committee; the promotion of family literacy through statewide reading programs such as Governor Ridge’s “Stop, Talk and Read to a Child Day”; and the curbing of youth violence through the Governor’s Community Partnership for Safe Children and its community-based initiatives.

Her many honors include the American Association of University Women’s Award tor Outstanding Community Service, the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition’s Pink Ribbon Award, the Gannon University Friends of Education Award, the Second Harvest Food Bank Bread Box Award, the Shirley Dennis Award for Community Service, the Bucks County Boy Scouts’ 1997 Woman of the Year Award, and the American Diabetes Association Pennsylvanian of Vision Award.

The Ridges are the parents of Lesley, now age twelve, and Tommy, who is eleven. The First Lady plans a great deal of her life around the needs and interests of her children, remembering, perhaps, the strong imprint on her early life as the eldest of three children in an exuberant, educationally oriented family, and the influence of those early years as they have resonated throughout her adult life. This interview was conducted at the Governor’s Residence on Wednesday, October 9, 1996.


I’d like to start by asking you about your education, formal and informal, and how you became interested in history.

There are many reasons why I’m interested in history. Probably formal education is less important than those informal, personal aspects of my back­ground that contributed to my love of history. To begin with, my father was a military officer who had served for three years in the European theater during World War II. When I was quite young, my family lived in Germany – West Germany at the time – so I was conscious of other cultures as well as the direct influences of history.

For example, I have a vivid memory of driving down the autobahn, looking at the skyLine and seeing the ruins of war. We lived in the southern part of Germany, where there had been vigorous Allied air raids. It was 1949. There were still a lot of bombed mins, and even as a small child I could sense that things were very difficult. The image is so strong in my memory that I can still see that picture. The aftermath of a great historical cataclysm like World War II made a dramatic visual impact on me that translates into a curiosity about why things happen and, more importantly, who’s involved in those events that happen.

My father was very interested in history. He was born before World War I, lived through the Great Depression, and was part of World War II. So he was directly involved in a number of major twentieth-century events and wanted to read and learn about them. We used to watch all the historical documentaries on television, including You Are There, on CBS. That’s how I became interested. I was only in early grade school, but I already knew from watching those programs that I liked history and politics.

What books in particular do you remember from your early years?

There was a series of erudite and beautifully illustrated periodicals that came out in book format that I remember reading when I was in fourth grade, or so. The series title may have been Horizon. It was a museum-quality kind of publication, and came on a monthly basis to the house. Also that year, I read A Tale of Two Cities. And that book, because it was set during the French Revolution, probably has a great deal to do with my interest in European history. Dickens certainly intrigued me with social history.

Did anyone else, besides your father, get you hooked on reading and history?

I did have some exceptional history and English teachers in high school that helped to fan that interest. It was really a combination of encountering very good history teachers in high school and then in college, as well as reading fine history and literature related to historical events.

What are some of your favorite history books?

I had several favorite historians. In European history the emphasis was mostly on English history, so I read Trevor-Roper and for Asian history I read Edwin O. Reischauer, who is wonderful. Other history books I enjoyed that come to mind are James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War, and David McCullough’s Truman. But my favorite period in American history comes before the Revolution. I’m interested in anything about the French and Indian War, during which time the colonies were expanding westward.

That chapter of American history is being rediscovered. In Pennsylvania, of course, we have a big part of the story to tell.

We do. Traveling back and forth across Pennsylvania these last two years, I’ve seen much of Pennsylvania as the early inhabitants – the Native Americans, the Europeans and settlers – must have seen it, because about sixty percent of it is still covered by woodland. What an adventure it must have been then to traverse this great state! I think that’s part of the appeal for me: the pioneering and the adventure.

Were there any museums or historic sites that made an early impression on you?

My dad was stationed in the Washington, D.C., area in the early fifties. Every time somebody visited, we would go to places like Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg. That was in the early years of restored Colonial Williamsburg and the history was very interactive there. I think it must have been a powerful influence on me.

I’m deeply affected by the historic setting itself. The Gettysburg Battlefield, for me, is very moving. When I stand on that battlefield I am drawn immediately into the magnitude of the events that occurred there, so it’s an emotional experience. The same is true of the Point in Pittsburgh. The Fort Pitt Museum is actually on the site that France and Britain fought to possess. You see the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers coming together to form the mighty Ohio and immediately understand, by being there, the strategic importance of that site.

To return to your visits to Gettysburg, how did you become interested in the 83rd Regiment of Pennsylvania?

This is one of those examples in which fate affects the way history influences people’s lives. I was director of the Erie public library system. The main library is housed in an 1897 neoclassical building, designed by the same architectural firm, Alden and Harlow, that designed the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh with four functions, although not the same disciplines, as in Erie: library, museum of art, museum of natural history, and science center. The collection that I inherited as library director included eight Civil War flags in a case, left behind by the Erie Historical Museum when it moved from the building in 1942. When I became director, I was conscious that we had a fiduciary responsibility for these flags. It wasn’t just the flag from the 83rd Regiment, but from other northwestern Pennsylvania regiments, the 145th and 111th.

But the 83rd story is so compelling because, of course, that regiment fought beside the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on the second day of Gettysburg. Strong Vincent was the regimental commander. I graduated from Strong Vincent High School in Erie. From that very personal perspective as a graduate of the high school named after this regimental commander, to the fact that as library director I had responsibility for artifacts that had been undisturbed since the last flag was rolled up in 1936, when the last GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] post closed in Erie County, in Wattsburg, I had to figure out a way to deal with those precious artifacts. It happened that Richard Sauers, who wrote Advance the Colors! about the regimental flags of Pennsylvania in the Civil War, visited the library some years ago and was quite excited when he saw those Civil War flags. I was greatly influenced by him. His enthusiasm and the possibility that we had the missing state regimental flag in our flag case really intrigued me.

Did you have to raise money to preserve the flags?

Yes, I tried several avenues but it was Gerald English, one of the Civil War Roundtable volunteers who made the fund-raising successful from one extraordinary gift of John Britton. Gerry has a lifelong interest in the 83rd and helped me raise money for the preserva­tion of its regimental flag, and also to deal with the other flags we had in the case. We became more and more aware of their potential as the reenactment movement grew stronger. A number of reenactment groups were drawn to the flags and wanted to see to do something to conserve them.

People forget how strategi­cally important flags were in battle.

These flags were the nineteenth-century equivalent of the [battlefield] radio – they were even more important than that. The Civil War was the last war in which Americans fought for their states. The regimental flag had tremendous meaning for the men fighting under its colors. It rallied them on the battlefield and was the symbol of their regiment. It also had a pragmatic function. In the great mayhem of battle, with smoke, noise, rifle fire, confusion, and the screams of injured and dying men, it was the one object they could look to for direction. Without a flag, there was no way on the battlefield to bring order back into that chaos.

What is compelling about preserving the flags now is that, as you say, the reenactors and the amateur historians rally around the flags as a touchstone, connecting them to those events.

The power of that flag as a symbol reaches into this century. In 1994, Fonda Thomson, a textile conservator working with the remnants of the 83rd’s flag had finished the project. We had only about ten percent of the original to start with, because so much of it was depleted and destroyed in battle. When the conservator’s work was unveiled in a middle school auditoriu­m just west of the city, people rose to their feet. It was a spontaneous reaction. They understood that men had died under the service of that very flag, some small part of which they were seeing now. It was a very strong, emotional response.

You served the Erie County Historical Society as board member and later president during a very important transi­tion period for what had been a rather small, traditional organization.

I was fortunate to serve first on the board, a very talented board, representing many different interests in the community – all with the common goal of promoting north­western Pennsylvania and its share of state and national history. We also have a talented and capable professional historical society director, Don Muller. I was fortunate to be on a board that, together with the director, had articulated a vision for the historical society after they had received a significant bequest from the Battles family. With that bequest came the responsibility to interpret rural western area counties, not just from an agricultural perspective, but also from that of a small community, Girard Borough.

The historical society was in the Cashiers House, which is a Commonwealth property and a fine example of urban, ante­bellum American architecture. We now had the opportunity both to expand the scope of the historical society and do more interpretation. The Erie History Center was born out of those events.

At the same time we experienced a cultural rejuvenation within the community with the Erie Art Museum, the historical society, and the Children’s Museum, which finally came to fruition in the whole concept of the cultural center, Discovery Square. The Erie Playhouse and the Warner Theater renova­tions are all part of this same chain of events.

Erie went through some difficult economic times. Under those circumstances, how did you keep attention focused on the arts and humanities?

I think community pride was important. We were approach­ing Erie’s bicentennial in 1995. There was generally increased interest in local, state, and family history. People today have become very involved, very hungry, in searching out their past. And that really goes back to the seventies and to the airing of Alex Haley’s Roots. I saw its impact from the library perspec­tive. There was a tremendous increase in the number of people doing family history and genealogy.

Then there was the phenomenal Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. We’re all eager to know about those whose lives were given over to larger issues. I think part of the fascination with history comes from the discovery that it’s not just a set of dry facts and dates but the story about how people coped with their situations and how they tried to leave their communities better places. So, l think those are ail factors that came together in the Erie rejuvenation. It also seems as though we had a combination of circum­stances in which community institutions really wanted to do more than they had always done – to go beyond the status quo.

Describe the process of deciding to leave the one hundred-year-old building that had been home to the main library and choosing, together with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the bay-front location with the new museum beside it.

One of the naturals for me as library director was to be involved in the cultural area – in art and history. First of all, the main library building is on the National Register of Historic Places. This is based on its great architectural significance and its tie with important nineteenth-century architects who had worked with Stanford White and H. H. Richardson. I worked closely with Dr. Margaret Henderson Floyd, of Tufts, to make sure that the Erie library building showed up in her major work, Architecture After Richardson: Regionalism Before Modernism – Longfellow, Alden, and Harlow in Boston and Pittsburgh. I had been involved because the building, I knew, is of great significance.

The first annual report and the minutes of all the library board meetings were located behind my desk in the director’s office, and I often consulted them to study those events that shaped the library from its very beginning. The library building had been the response to, and result of, Erie’s centennial in 1895. Now, we were approach­ing the bicentennial. I was once again drawn into history, my interest in educating our community – about its own history and the significance of what had happened, and the potential for the community in the future.

In the nineteen eighties, the library building had undergone a series of renovations that cost more than a million dollars. The project bought us more ti.me in a wonderful but inadequate space. In essence, though, if we were going to stay in that building, we would end up consuming and destroying it. We needed to think about the building as a building, and not exclusively as a library building, because it wasn’t built exclusive­ly as a library building. We had been there for almost one hundred years. So the decision was made, by county government, to move out and use a bay-front site. The land was donated by Penelec, and it was a natural to co-locate with the bay-front Erie Maritime Museum.

The library itself takes advantage of a number of things. First of all, there is the importance of the geography. The greatest natural resources in northwestern Pennsylvania are the bay and the lake. In addition, the complex is located near the Bay Front Highway, which ties the community together, from southern Erie County to the very northern part. This major transportation route makes the site readily accessible.

We thus had a clear opportunity to build a new building and design it for an expanded role – one that goes back to the early twentieth century when, before World War I and up until World War II, lifelong learning and continuing education were more prominently the mission of the library.

Coincidental to the development of the library was the inclusion of the Flagship Niagara as part of the bay-front complex, together with the Erie Maritime Museum. You insisted on this.

It was a logical step. The 1897 library building, which was modeled after the Carnegie Institute, combined the Erie Public Museum, the Erie Library, the Art Club of Erie, and the School District of Erie. The first two were sister departments, under the governance of the city school district. Now, one hundred years later, we repeated the idea of the interconnection of several disciplines within a larger entity – in this case, the bay-front complex: library/education; a maritime museum; and the Flagship Niagara as living history. There is a natural intersection of interests. They are all cultural and, more importantly, educational institutions.

Can you talk about your success in attracting private as well as public support for the library, especially the extraordi­nary gift from Dr. Blasco?

The emergence of one such extraordinarily gener­ous person, Dr. Raymond Blasco, came at a critical point in making things happen. Dr. Blasco, who is now deceased, grew up in southern Erie County and had used the library when he was in high school. He was interested in books and reading and understood the .importance of education. He recognized what education had allowed him to do in his life’s work as a physician. He felt that he needed to reinforce those ideas. He began by provid­ing a major gift of a bookmobile to the library. I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Blasco during the same period when all these other events were coming together. He literally “inter­viewed” the library through our visits.

Not only did he provide a gift for the auditorium, he also made a major bequest to the Erie Community Foundation for the Library Fund. This was the first time we had a major endowment for the public library in our community in the more than one hundred years of its existence. The auditorium was a wonderful marriage of his interest in education and the library, as a community institution, and also the arts. He was very interested in the arts. This auditori­um will be used by the Erie Maritime Museum, and it will be used by the public library and by the community. I think it’s wonderful. I took a tour of it this summer. We’ll be able to do commu­nity teleconferencing, which is important for continuing education.

The Erie County Technical Institute is headquartered in the Maritime Museum, so that auditorium will really become multipurpose and truly a community auditorium. The space is designed so it can be used with a smaller group or to seat nearly three hundred people. The space can be adapted for a lecture, or for the use of telecommunications and sophisticated broadcast purposes. It was important for us to build flexibility and functionality into those spaces, but at the same time capitalize on the natural setting and also, in the case of the auditorium, give people a sense that they are in an intimate environment.

How did the impressive Friends organization at the library develop?

Like most Friends groups, out of crisis. The Friends group that we have now really originated in the late seventies. There has been a succession of Friends groups in the one hundred-year history of the library, but I can only comment on this last era.

The library was always part of municipal government, a school district library. There was a brief period of about six years when the library became a nonprofit, but it once again became a part of a public entity, now a department of county government. It still is necessary to have a Friends group. First of all, you need a group that can speak about the importance of the service that you’re offering to the community. These groups don’t have a vested interest. Their members are not employed by the institution and can speak from the perspective of the private citizen. The other important aspect of Friends is their volunteer capacity-enhanc­ing programs and helping with fund-raising. One of the accomplishments that our Friends achieved, as a result of its efforts together with the Erie Society for Genealogical Research, was to acquire the genealogical records of the church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. This really did a great deal, indirectly, to foster interest in local history and genealogy.

What historical places in the Commonwealth do you plan to visit?

I would really like to explore, along with my children, two areas of the state: the northeast and the southeast. Our children are ten and eleven and getting to the age when taking them to historical sites and visiting historical museums is going to be more meaningful for them because they’ll have a context in which to evaluate what they’re seeing.

Several impressive and successful exhibits promoting Pennsylvania history have been unveiled at the Governor’s Residence. Do you plan more?

I believe very strongly that one of the missions of the governor’s official residence is the marriage of art and history-to promote Pennsylvania’s culture, but also to promote awareness about Pennsylvania’s history. Any time that the governor and I can do that, we will, with exhibits like the first one, in 1995, which chronicled the images of Penn’s treaty with the Indians. That exhibit was made possible by a gift to The State Museum of Pennsylvania from Vivian and Meyer P. Potamkin, of Philadelphia. The second exhibit featured Violet Oakley to promote awareness of this remarkable Pennsylvania artist and citizen. The exhibit puts in human scale the murals that are in the Capitol. We are very conscious that we have a partnership and a mission to support visitors to the Capitol, but the Capitol is so monumental and so magnificent that I think it overwhelms visitors. One of the things that we can do here, at the governor’s residence, is to put a more human scale on elements of the Capitol.

We also have the objects and the furniture in the house, some of which are histori­cal artifacts themselves and illustrate great Pennsylvania artisanship and craftsmanship from two hundred years ago. These elements help us to use the house as a teaching tool. The governor believes very strongly that people should have access to the residence. At the same time, we also use the Governor’s Residence for state dinners and state visits, for example. The Governor’s Residence, although it’s not an old building – it dates from 1968 – does have a historical mission. At some point in time it, too, will be a historical building. So we’re conscious that, in one sense, we also have a curatorial responsibility for the building itself.

Is there any part of the collection in the Governor’s Residence that holds special meaning for you?

The “governors’ cabinet,” which is just outside the governor’s library, is an example. It greatly interests and piques the curiosity of the thousands of visitors that we have here every year. Each object tells a personal story about one of Pennsyl­vania’s governors. It’s not comprehensive, but a selective and varied grouping of artifacts – from Governor Geary’s spurs, to Governor Thornburgh’s gift of two birds carved by his brother, to a piece of crystal from Governor Casey. I think people like that object or artifact that reveals something more personal or meaningful.

What role do you believe those of us who are preserving the history of Pennsylvania should be playing?

We have a culturally diverse country and commonwealth. We have to find those things that we share in common so that we can promote harmony and understand the importance of why we’re here and what we’re all about. I look at history as being, on a philosophical level, that element that ties us together, rather than those factors that have a tendency to drive us apart. In addition, because of where we are located geo­graphically, our history contributes greatly to the travel and tourism industry. This is a major industry in Pennsylvania, which employs thousands of people and creates opportunity for many businesses. History has given us an important economic development role.

The combination of those two purposes, I think, is com­pelling for history. And I think people are also thirsty to know and to feel a sense of belonging again, to something bigger than themselves.


For Further Reading

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Greenwich House, 1982.

Eberhart, George M. The Whole Library Handbook 2: Current Data, Professional Advice, and Curiosa About Libraries and Library Services. Chicago: American Library Association, 1995.

MacDonald, Robert J., and David Frew. Home Port Erie: Voices of Silent Images. Erie, Pa.: Erie County Historical Society, 1996.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Muller, Mary M. A Town at Presque Isle: A Short History of Erie, Pennsylvania to 1980. Erie, Pa.: Erie County Historical Society, 1991.

Rosenberg, Max. The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie, 1812-1813. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1987.

Sauers, Richard A. Advance the Colors: Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags. Harrisburg: Capitol Preservation Committee, 1987.

Schoenfeld, Max. Fort de la Presqu’ile and the French Penetration into the Upper Ohio Country, 1753-1759. Erie, Pa.: Erie County Historical Society, 1989.

Waddell, Louis M., and Bruce D. Bomberger. The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania 1753-1763: Fortification and Struggle During the War for Empire. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1996.


Brent D. Glass has served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission since 1987. From 1983 to 1987, he acted as executive director of the North Carolina Humanities Council and was the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer for the North Carolina Division of Archives and History for four years. He is a frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage.