By LISA WHALEY
On that first day, 17 years ago, when Deborah Montanti stepped through the doors of the Duncan House ready for her new position as Heritage Alliance education director, she still remembers how quiet the rooms were, empty of staff already chasing down the business of the town.
This week, as Montanti prepares for her last day as the Alliance’s executive director, those same rooms are anything but silent.
Like the town she has worked to preserve, the walls within which she has labored are now overflowing with the stories she has fought so hard to save.
“This is not a job you can easily walk away from,” Montanti admitted, looking around at what will soon be her old office in the Duncan House. “And I am sure there will be days where I am sitting on my front porch going ‘what did I do?’”
But she is also sure of one other thing.
“It’s the right time,” Montanti said. “And I know the Heritage Alliance is going to be well cared for.”
Montanti first came to the Heritage Alliance in 2002. At that time, she was already living in Jonesborough and working as director of Rocky Mount Historic Site in Piney Flats. She was thinking about lightening her workload to be able to spend more time with her family when she heard about the job opening.
“The thing that attracted me the most to the Heritage Alliance was Oak Hill School,” Montanti recalled. “It was that program that I wanted to be part of. That’s why when I heard that job was open, I kind of jumped at it.”
Montanti was met that first day with a welcome note and a stack of materials to read, including two History of Washington County books, Paul Fink’s book on Jonesborough and the “Architectural History of Jonesborough.”
“I read as much as I could read in one setting and then I went out and started walking around and talking to people,” Montanti said. “And I quickly discovered — and this lasted for many months — that trying to find my way around this little town was really hard work, because nobody knows the addresses of anyone.”
Instead, she said, there was lots of “It’s by the Haws house or go up to the this-and-that or the other thing house.”
Just navigating and trying to learn the history of Jonesborough’s houses would keep her busy for months.
“I spent a lot of time with old walking tour brochures, just walking the streets of Jonesborough,” Montanti recalled, laughing. “Steve Cook called me Jonesborough’s least expensive street walker.”
It was during those walks that Jonesborough began to weave its magic.
“I was already magically in love with Oak Hill School,” Montanti said. “I don’t remember how long it was, but it was sometime during that first year, when it happened.
“I came into town really early one morning, and walked around and ended up back here sitting on the porch, just watching the sun come over and thinking, ‘This is a job? How lucky am I that this is where I work.’ ”
Not long after, Montanti found herself stepping in to replace Randy Sanders as the Heritage Alliance’s executive director.
While her title changed, her commitment had not. And, for the next 15 years, Montanti would help bring in a new era for the Heritage Alliance, expanding its role and broadening its impact.
Throughout her work, Montanti has found many favorite places throughout town, but two, she said, stand out.
“The Chester Inn and the Warner Institute,” she said. “The Warner Institute speaks to me in so many ways, but I hear the footsteps of every student who ever dreamed of a better life in that building. The story of the Warner Institute gives me cold chills today.
“The Chester Inn wraps me in a feather bed and makes me feel at home. It’s a weary traveler coming off the road and finding warmth and comfort and companionship.”
One of her brightest moments as executive director, in fact, has been the opening of the Chester Inn to the public. But it is the people with whom she has worked that have given her the greatest sense of accomplishment.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what am I most proud,” Montanti said. “In all honesty, Anne Mason, Joe Spiker and Jacob Simpson, even though Jacob had to leave us. Anne and Joe, they have both grown so much and it’s been just such an honor to watch them grow in their careers and to watch them fall in love with this town the way I have — to fall in love and honor the work.”
They were also the ones who have given her the freedom to retire.
“It’s been something I’ve been thinking of doing for maybe a year now,” Montanti admitted. “I went out on medical leave, and while I was out, it became really clear that Anne was ready.”
As she recovered from the knee surgery that prompted the medical leave, she said she was watching closely.
“When it became so apparent that Anne was really ready, I just felt this huge weight lift off my shoulders. I just knew this is the right time. This is the perfect time.”
“Anne will be named acting director upon my leaving,” Montanti continued. “And there will be a search conducted. There is a procedure that they have to go through. It will be advertised. And I am hoping Anne applies and that she gets it.”
Of course, retirement from the Heritage Alliance doesn’t mean Montanti is leaving the town. It continues to work its spell, and she doesn’t see that as ever changing.
“Jonesborough has its ups and down like any small town,” Montanti said, looking back. “And the organization has had its ups and down. And I’ve fallen in and out of love so many times, like we all do in any long-term relationship.
“It still remains one of the most privileged things I have ever been able to do, to serve this town, to serve these buildings. To be the voice of these buildings. To be able to honor the stories and the lives of the people who have come before. This is just a magical place.”
Montanti pauses for a moment and looks out the window.
“Bob Browning calls it ‘Brigadoon’ and we’ve all kind of thought that that was funny. But he’s not wrong,” she said. “He’s not wrong.”
As for the future?
“I’m looking forward to falling in love with Jonesborough all over again.”