Steve Rossio isn’t afraid to wear a toga. Back when his high school English teacher asked students to give a speech from one of Shakespeare’s plays, he did exactly that, climbing atop a desk and shouting out a scene from Julius Caesar. It wasn’t the best performance, he admits, but the students previously struggling to keep their eyelids open sat up and took notice.
Rossio, employs that same creative method to bring history to life for the Portage community while doing approximately 30 presentations per year.
“Why, when you go to speak publicly, do you have to make things boring?” Rossio asks. “I guess that’s why I keep getting asked to various venues. I’ve done presentations where college students are present and they’re like, ‘Why aren’t you a college professor?’”
Occasionally, Rossio catches flak from fellow historians who feel history shouldn’t be “sold.” His response: Just try standing there in a suit and tie droning on to a group of second graders about ethics and history — they’re gone in 30 seconds.
What do you wear when talking with children?
I have a pioneer costume. The last group I talked to, we talked for an hour and 30 minutes. Second-graders! The teachers were like, “You just maintained their attention. We don’t know how you do it.”
What do you like most about working with kids?
The passion that they have. When you talk about a one-room schoolhouse and how it compares to the school that they’re in and you see that explosion of “Wow!” that’s important because I want these kids to appreciate history. And I feel when you start young and you get them excited about it, that will manifest into at least an appreciation (of history) so the preservation will be there for the future. It helps me keep things in perspective as well because I think (when you’re) getting older you start to lose your imagination, and when you have someone so excited it’s like, “Hey, this is pretty cool.”
The only downside in working with kids is when they point out things that are in your generation. We had an E.T. doll at one time. One of the kids said, “What’s that?” And I said, “It’s E.T.” He said, “What’s E.T.?”
I heard you originally wanted to be a radio host.
I went to Western Michigan University and thought about going into radio journalism or broadcasting. They had the hierarchical thing where you get bumped (from classes) for the seniors and juniors. I always had an interest in history, so while I kept being bumped from those classes, I kept taking history courses. After awhile, I finally got to the point where I thought, “Hmmm … I have enough history courses to have a degree in history.”
How are radio and public history similar?
I had a great professor who made the comment that if you’re going into public history (meaning that you work outside of an academic setting), you need to be able to either write well or speak well. Speaking was kind of a natural fit.
And you do lots of speaking?
The speaking covers all ranges. I might be speaking to a Cub Scout group of kids who are in first and second grade and then the next day be speaking to the senior center. So I have to be able to adjust.
What is your job like?
Every day is different. I might come in with a goal to process a collection and I end up having a patron stop in who tells me about living in Portage in the 1940s. I had a woman recently whose family were celery growers, and she brought in pictures. It’s also going out if they’re going to tear a house down and I’ll have to go get photographs, or if we’re working on a cemetery project. I can change clothes three or four times in one day. A couple of weeks ago I did a school presentation, came back, changed into work clothes and then changed into cemetery clothes, came back and changed into work clothes. So I thought, “I need to have a closet here!”
How did you get where you are today?
I started as the local historian, and it was a part-time position. And they had a part-time position in the youth department. It was kind of surprising to them that a historian could work with kids. It’s like the perception of the librarian walking around saying “shhh” all the time. With the historian it’s the round glasses, a little paunchy and wearing a bowtie and droning on for hours about subjects no one cares about. When they saw me working with the kids, they were like, “Hmm. We would like to make you full time.” Originally it was two separate jobs, but it’s all crossed over now.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue public history?
If you put your heart and soul into it, people notice and you will be a success. I think that’s what happened with me. I put my heart and soul into it. It’s evident, and people like that.
— Interviewed by Lisa Mackinder