Although born and raised in Chillicothe, Peoria Historical Society Executive Director Jeffrey Kampfl has been around the world and back since graduation: Texas, England, Belgium-but first up was the Middle East. "After high school, I joined the U.S. Navy. I served in the Persian Gulf for a year and a half during operation 'Earnest Will' and the first Persian Gulf War, receiving citations along the way."
After his stint in the military, Kampfl held a few odd jobs while trying to decide what to do next. "My younger brother was just finishing his Bachelors degree at Eastern Illinois University. He and my parents suggested I try going back to school. I took one class at ICC and received an 'A' for the course. Being rather pleased with myself and realizing I was still college material, I enrolled at ICC full-time. After completing my Associates degree early, I decided to continue my academic career and pursue a higher degree," he said.
Pursuing that degree took him in some interesting directions. "When I went back to college, my parents were hoping I would pursue a career in the medical field or work with computers. I soon realized neither of these fields truly appealed to me. History had always been a hobby of mine, so I decided to declare history my major. I've always believed that everyone has an aptitude or gift for something. Mine happened to be in the study of history and archaeology."
While attending Eastern Illinois University, Kampfl became the graduate assistant of Dr. Bailey Young in the history department. "Dr. Young taught medieval and world history at EIU but was also an accomplished archaeologist. My first archaeological work was conducted on the Walhain-Saint-Paul castle site in Belgium. My special interest in the medieval period, along with Dr. Young's influence, led to my seeking a degree in medieval archaeology at the University of York, England. My field of expertise was medieval arms and armor. My Masters Thesis, 'The Ornamental Warrior: Some Early Anglo-Saxon Sword Burials in Southeast England,' was the culmination of my research in England. My PhD deals with the conservation of a number of swords retrieved from the La Belle shipwreck found off the Texas coast. My dissertation involves the archaeological and historical analysis of the sword assembly."
His graduate work actually has an Illinois angle, he said, "The La Belle was one of four ships employed by the explorer Robert La Salle to explore the Gulf of Mexico in 1686. In Texas, the connection between La Salle and La Belle is obvious. In Illinois, the connection between La Salle and the results of his Illinois River exploration-Starved Rock, Fort Creve Coeur, etc.-is also obvious. I hope to bring the discoveries and various pools of knowledge together to form a more comprehensive history and archaeology of the early French presence in North America."
Kampfl's interest in history and archaeology was developed from family roots: both of his parents are European immigrants. "My mother came from The Netherlands in the late 1950s. Her older sister married an American GI during World War II, then followed him back to the U.S. My aunt became homesick and asked that one of her brothers or sisters join her in America; my mother answered the call. My father was from Hungary. He came to the U.S. during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Because all of our relatives still reside in Europe, we made frequent trips back to visit and even live for a short time."
Kampfl made his way back to Peoria from Texas, where he was working on his PhD, when he discovered the new development back home. "I had gotten to the point with my PhD research that I could leave the Texas A&M area, finishing my dissertation at home in Illinois. I heard rumors circulating about a proposed museum being built in downtown Peoria. I phoned Lakeview CEO Jim Richerson to get a little more information on the museum, and he put me in touch with Fred Kowalske, president of the Peoria Historical Society. My predecessor, Kathy Belsly, had just turned in her notice. I interviewed with Fred and the rest of the PHS board, and here I am."
In addition to the job opportunity, Kampfl said his family moved back because Peoria has been, and still is, home. "Peoria and the surrounding area is a good place to raise our family. Often, we hear how people desire nothing more than to get out of Peoria. After being away for almost five years, we realized just how much Peoria had to offer. It's especially gratifying to use what I've learned and trained for to help in the preservation of my hometown."
Kampfl, who took over the reigns of the Peoria Historical Society in September, said that's actually the best part of his position. "I've spent the last nine years of my life learning and studying history and archaeology. I've taken a childhood fascination with history and turned it into a career. I've met some of the most interesting and generous people. It amazes me how hard some people will work for the sheer pleasure of indulging their passion-history."
The downside of his career is shared by many in the non-for-profit sector. "Funding is a constant worry," he said. "However, with strong leadership and the proper public and academic exposure, PHS will remain the guardians of Peoria's historic past."
Kampfl said his job, as he sees it, is to build on the tradition the PHS has established since 1934. "Since our conception, a countless number of PHS members, volunteers, staff, and board members have developed an organization truly devoted to the preservation of Peoria's fascinating history. My job is to see that the PHS continues and improves upon its mission: to preserve and celebrate Peoria's story. Exposure is the key. My immediate goal is to expand PHS service to the community and elevate the society's profile in both the public and academic community. Historical societies throughout the country have become important contributors to development activities. PHS will use its many assets to develop educational outreach programs designed to bring Peoria's history to the area schools. PHS also looks to build collaborative relationships with other humanities-based groups in Peoria."
Kampfl said the biggest surprise he's had since joining the PHS is the extent and relevance of the historical artifact collection and special documents collection housed at the Cullom-Davis Library at Bradley University. "I've contacted a number of scholars of various backgrounds and disciplines; most of our collection hasn't yet been properly researched. I invite local, state, and national scholars to utilize our special collections and, subsequently, publish the results."
Building on this vision, he said he hopes to see the PHS membership grow as well. "Not just a membership that supports us financially, but a membership that understands the important role it plays in preserving Peoria's past. It's a responsibility we all share." AA!