Spotlight Iowa City: Tireless volunteer 'lives' at Old Capitol


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Only one little boy gave Vilda Sutherlin a hard time on an Old Capitol Museum tour.

She calmly explained he had two options: He could cooperate and finish the tour with the rest of the group or stay behind and wait at the door.

He continued with the tour.

Being a grandmother, she said, "gives you an out."

"If you are the positive person, it will work," Sutherlin said.

Sutherlin, 84, has worked as an Old Capitol Museum docent for more than 30 years — since 1977. She began her position just a year after the one-time state Capitol opened as a museum.

It was the ideal position for a volunteer who loves people and loves history, she said.

She has led tours for school children, adults, college students, and international visitors.

Sutherlin always felt a personal sense of belonging and love for the building — which is why she had a terrible feeling in her stomach in November 2001, when she learned it had caught on fire.

Five years and $5 million later, the Old Capitol Museum welcomed the public again. And Sutherlin returned to her position, just as she had hoped she could.

Two stylized paintings of the one-time seat of state government hang in separate rooms of her Oaknoll Community apartment, a visual symbol of her love of the building.

Family pictures of smiling grandchildren and her own straight-faced grandparents hang on the walls.
Sutherlin was married for around 50 years to Robert Sutherlin, whom she met in Iowa City in 1949.
Robert Sutherlin managed Iowa Book for around 42 years before he passed away; he is the model for the Iowa Book logo of a relaxed man holding an open book.

She immediately knew she would marry him. But much to her consternation, it took him awhile to ask her out on a date.

"I almost wanted to say, 'Where were you?' but I didn't," Sutherlin said.

The couple had a son and a daughter.

Mary Oxford and her family had been neighbors with the Sutherlins since the early 1960s. Since Robert passed away, the two women have formed a tight bond.

"She does so many things for people," Oxford said. "She's just a caregiver."

Shalla Ashworth, the director of operations for the Old Capitol Museum and the Museum of Natural History, worked at the museum first as a student and later as director. She has worked with Sutherlin since 1991.

"It's a wonderful experience to work with volunteers such as Vilda, because they bring with them such enormous knowledge," Ashworth said. "Not just because they have experienced life so long, but because they have been out in the world."

Ashworth nominated Sutherlin, then Director, for the Governor's Volunteer Award, which she was awarded in 2000.

When Sutherlin isn't leading tours at the Old Capitol, she volunteers at her church, Gloria Dei Lutheran, and Mercy Hospital, and she visits residents at nursing homes.

It's a hectic life, but Sutherlin doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon.

"I wouldn't know how to go any other way," she said.

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