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Wilhelm marks end to his historic tenure

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

He said it's time to spend more time with his family. So Bob Wilhelm has decided to retire after 28 years as assistant director and director of Historic Fort Hays.

"I've got four grandkids who haven't been spoiled nearly enough," said Wilhelm, whose last day is March 1.

Wilhelm's family is helping him celebrate with an open house at 2 p.m. Sunday at Historic Fort Hays, 1472 U.S. Highway 183 Bypass, or approximately a half mile west of the intersection of Main Street and U.S. Highway 183 Bypass.

A self-proclaimed introvert, Wilhelm wasn't so sure he wanted a public party.

"I told them I guess I can show up and give me some cake and leave it at that," he said.

His family, namely daughter-in-law Amanda Tippy, saw otherwise. So she started planning the open house and told Wilhelm he had to be there.

The more Wilhelm thought about it, the more he has gotten used to the idea. And he is looking forward to visiting with people, something that didn't come so easily during his early days at the fort.

"When I first started here, my main job was to mow the grass," said Wilhelm, who became director of the historic site in 1988. "(Mowing) took a lot of time, so I didn't really visit with people."

Wilhelm, 63, goes on to tell the story of one Sunday during his first summer in the mid-1980s he was mowing and he heard a grinding sound even after he turned off his mower.

"The rumbling never stopped, so I looked out the window, and saw a bus full of people out there," he said. "It took me 10 minutes to get up the courage to go out there."

The bus had pulled off the interstate, not realizing the museum was closed on Sunday.

"So," Wilhelm said, "I thought, 'Well, I guess I'm going to give an unscheduled bus tour.' "

The rest, as they say, is history.

Wilhelm realized he liked talking to people -- some who have come from all over the world to visit the fort -- and telling them the history of Fort Hays.

The fort was established in 1865 for troops mainly to protect the construction crews on the Union Pacific Railroad.

"I started visiting with people, and found it's really interesting," he said. "I like telling the history of Fort Hays. When you get to studying the history of Fort Hays and Hays City, you don't have to make up anything."

Wilhelm has seen a lot of changes through the years, including returning one of the officer's quarters from town to the fort and renovations to the blockhouse, guardhouse and visitor's center.

He also has seen a lot of people, what with multiple public presentations throughout the year, including several with school children.

"Now," he added, "it's all about the people."

In fact, Wilhelm said it's the interaction with co-workers and visitors he will miss the most.

He will get the chance to do a lot of that Sunday before giving full attention to his wife, Joan, his four children and four grandchildren.

Tippy said the come-and-go party will carry on throughout the afternoon, and she invites anyone who isn't able to make it to send a card to Robert Wilhelm, 413 Big Creek Drive, Hays, KS 67601.

Donations will go to the Memorial Lantern Fund in Wilhelm's honor. Checks are to be made out to "Friends of Fort Hays."

Wilhelm's replacement has yet to be named.