He knows that history overflows with wars, presidents and politics. But he also understands that history brims with people and places, like neighborhoods, old movie theaters or someone's grandmother. Bill Gonzalez tracks down those smaller pieces of the past, those local threads, in the vast photo archives of the Durham Museum. Among Durham staff members, he's the go-to guy if you want to find photos and negatives in the museum's collection of more than 700,000 images of Omaha history. He loves it when a hunt pays off. “It's a rush,'' he said. “It's a little bit like being a detective.”
Digging up photos will become easier for Gonzalez and the public as the Durham forges ahead on a project to convert its entire collection to digital images that can be searched by computer instead of thumbed through by hand.
Preservation is an important goal. The negatives and prints, many more than 100 years old, are slowly deteriorating, and the museum doesn't want history crumbling away.
The Durham launched the project three years ago and aims to finish by the end of the decade or sooner. The museum so far has converted 62,500 images to digital. They are available for viewing on the Durham website.
Gonzalez, 62, grew up in South Omaha and has been fascinated since he was a boy by, as he puts it, “anything old.” When he was 12, for example, he plowed through “The Iliad,” an epic poem set during the Trojan War.
He has no formal training in museum work or photography. Past jobs have included running a warehouse. Still, he understands the important role the Durham archives play in telling the city's history through its people and places.
Gonzalez is reminded of that every time someone calls or walks through his door.
PHOTO: BRYNN ANDERSON
He remembers the woman who told him her mother, who had recently died, was a lifeguard at Miller Park Pool in the 1940s. When Gonzalez showed the woman a picture of the pool from that era, her eyes welled with tears.
There was the elderly couple looking for photos of the old Blackstone Hotel at 36th and Farnam Streets because they got engaged there decades ago.
There was the young woman who called after spotting a picture at a restaurant of her grandmother as a teenager in 1945, celebrating the Japanese surrender during World War II, and she wondered if the Durham had that photo. When the woman walked in to pick up a copy, she didn't have to tell Gonzalez why she was there. She looked just like her grandmother.
He became a volunteer in the archive department in 2005 and a staff member in 2006.
When he works with the public, he sits in a swivel chair at an oval wooden table, wearing khakis, a blue polo shirt with the Durham logo and a zippered sweatshirt.
Steel shelves lining the walls of the archive department are filled with boxes holding thousands of prints and negatives. Photos by former World-Herald photographers John Savage and Robert Paskach are an important part of the collection.
The public can purchase prints of photos in archives, including digitized images.
One shelf in the archive department holds 3-inch thick binders containing photo indexes, among the most important tools Gonzalez has for hunting down pictures.
The indexes list photos by topic in alphabetical order, like Central High School or Hanscom Park. Alongside each category are numbers designating in which boxes those photos or negatives might be found.
Some searches can be easy, like if someone asks for photos of the old Brandeis department store. Look under the B's and there it is.
But often, it's not that simple. Let's say someone asks for photos of an old house at a certain address on California Street. Any photos of the house could be listed under California Street, but also could be listed under the name of the architect, builder or former owner.
Gonzalez has an edge when it comes to those kinds of searches. One of his first jobs as a volunteer was refiling photos. That task gave him a tour of the archives, helping him learn where photos were stored and under what category.
Sarah Swain, the museum's photo archive and collections manager, said Gonzalez is great with the public because he's approachable.
Some people think museum workers are a bit snobbish, she said, but Gonzalez erases any misconceptions. He'll swap stories with people, like telling them about the time he fell into a cattle pen while nosing around a South Omaha stockyard as a boy.
When people thank him for finding a photo, he simply tells them, “This is my job. This is what I do.”
Swain said Gonzalez's Omaha roots are one reason he's so good at tracking down photos.
“Bill kind of has the history in his head,'' she said.
A man stands on a replica of the Statue of Liberty on top of the old City Hall at 18th and Farnam Streets in 1907. This photo is among Gonzalez's favorites. Credit: Bostwick-Frohardt Collection
If someone is looking for photos of the old Chief Theater, Gonzalez knows just what they're talking about because he worked there as a teenager.
Same thing happens if he's asked about the old Big Joe's Diner on Railroad Avenue — Gonzalez used to buy fish sandwiches there during Lent.
Gonzalez's 34-year-old son, Joe, said his dad regularly offers historical details about buildings when they drive through Omaha together. Maybe he'll describe a building that sat on what now is an empty lot or a business once found in a particular storefront.
His Omaha ties help when he's searching for photos in the archives, but that's not all that provides clues. Gonzalez has always looked for the story behind a photo — in both his family pictures and those at the museum — which helps the image stick in his mind.
“I break it down and see what's going on in the picture,” he said.
He remembers a photo of his maternal grandparents taken in Mexico in the late 1920s. Even as a teenager, he noticed that his grandfather was much older than his grandmother, easily twice her age. He learned that his grandfather was a wealthy rancher, and that it was an arranged marriage.
One of his favorite Durham photos shows little boys in a pedal-car race downtown on a summer day in 1954. Gonzalez always focused on their expressions, like the one little boy who's so intense he's not smiling, even though he's winning.
Gonzalez grew up the oldest of eight kids near Brown Park in South Omaha. His mom worked at Philips Department Store and his dad worked at a packing house and then later in maintenance for an airline at Eppley Airfield. Both were born in Mexico.
He attended St. Bridget Elementary School and graduated from St. Joseph High School.
He loved visiting the South Omaha library as a boy to devour grownup history books. He was too young for an adult library card so he'd spend a few hours reading at the library, then return the book to the shelf and hope it would be there when he returned.
As a high school freshman he was assigned a research project on a topic of his choice. He picked Mexico and was fascinated by the story of the Mexican conquest and photos of Aztec ruins.
The project increased his interest in his Mexican heritage. He loved hearing family stories passed down from his grandparents about life in Mexico generations ago. One story told how families would hide their daughters in big outdoor ovens when bandits rode into villages following the Mexican Revolution.
Sen. John Kennedy & wife, Jackie, pictured at the Fontenelle Hotel in 1958. Credit: From the Durham Museum
Later, during his high school years, a man gave a slide show at school of Omaha photographs by Louis Bostwick, a professional photographer whose four decades of work are an important part of the Durham collection. Gonzalez remembers photos flashing on the screen of the original Orpheum Theater and the original Civic Auditorium, and how impressed he was with the pictures.
Gonzalez, who has three children and three grandchildren, attended college briefly after graduating from high school but said he didn't have the money to continue. He took a job with an Omaha chemical company, making deliveries and running the warehouse. He said he later worked at a paper company, leaving in 1999 after an accident on the job, and then went on disability.
He felt bored and needed a challenge, so he contacted the Durham after hearing that the museum was looking for volunteers.
Gonzalez, the South Omaha boy who grew up fascinated by the past, said he's energized by sifting the through the archives, helping people find their childhood home, an old school or a forgotten theater.
“It's a legacy for the people of Omaha,'' he said. “It belongs to everyone.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, firstname.lastname@example.org