Giving the past a future: Pat Rutledge steers Historical Society

Lance Shearer

Pat Rutledge wants to be sure that on Marco Island, the past has a future. She has dedicated herself to seeing Marco’s history preserved and showcasing it at the Marco Historical Museum.

After serving as the Marco Island Historical Society’s (MIHS) first executive director, Rutledge was recently elevated to the CEO position by the society’s board.

“The title CEO better reflects her overall responsibility at the society – people understand it better,” said MIHS board president Michael O’Rourke. “Pat is a tremendous asset to the Historical Society and our community, someone who is very much respected by our members.”

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Rutledge worked her way up through the ranks at the Historical Society after retiring in 2010 from a lifelong career as an executive at Pitney Bowes. She started off at the newly opened museum as a volunteer in the giftshop, but quickly took on additional tasks and responsibilities. She joined the society’s board in 2011, taking on the communications and marketing chair, and became president-elect in 2014. Becoming board president in 2015, she retained the communications and marketing portfolio, and then became the society’s first executive director.

Since then, she has made major strides in achieving the Historical Society’s goals, including staffing up and evolving the board’s governance structure, completing the museums’ exhibit halls, and perhaps the most high-profile goal, securing the return in 2019 to Marco of its most famous expatriate, the Key Marco Cat.

The museum’s Calusa Gallery, Pioneer Period, and Modern Marco exhibit halls are all open, bringing thousands of visitors and helping them understand how the island got to where it is today. While a number of artifacts that came to Marco along with the Key Marco Cat have been returned to their northern museum home at the University of Pennsylvania, the Cat itself has had its residency at MIHS extended, with the visit now scheduled to last until 2026. It is joined by a newly arrived group of pre-Colombian artifacts.

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“The new pieces are really cool,” said Rutledge. “There is a carved, multi-piece wolf head, and a little man, a wooden carving of a person. They give us insight into the daily life of the Calusa and Muspa people.”

They also highlight how much we don’t know about Marco’s early inhabitants. Due to the relatively primitive archaeological techniques in use when the cat was exhumed in 1896 and the harsh climatic conditions, the age of the Key Marco is not known within 1,000 years, or even which of the cultures created it.

With the extraordinary measures needed to safeguard and preserve the prehistoric artifacts, they cannot remain indefinitely, and Marco Island is lucky to have them at all, said Rutledge.

“We don’t have the funding or resources to take care of them” indefinitely. “Typically, pieces like these are displayed for one year, and then ‘rested’ for ten years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“It’s been a little crazy recently,” said Rutledge. “We just had 1,800 visitors in the month of June, which is usually much quieter. Even in the COVID year, we had 13,000 people come through.”

Rutledge showed a recent a visitor another exciting project for the museum, the refurbishing and restoration of a hand built skiff from Goodland that spent decades in storage in Tallahassee. The boat will become part of a redesigned lobby, the last space in the museum to receive a makeover.

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Work on the skiff, said Pat, is being spearheaded by her husband Ron, “my best and foremost volunteer.” Like Pat, Ron Rutledge spent virtually his entire adult life working at Pitney Bowes. The twosome met there, working in San Francisco, and both stayed 40 years with the company, which almost makes them historical artifacts themselves in today’s world, where such lengthy tenure is very much the exception.

While Pat loves delving into the past in the historical aspect of the Historical Society’s mission, much of her focus now is on the present and future, raising funds to accomplish projects such as the new lobby and caring for the artifacts and exhibits.

“We are undertaking a campaign to grow our endowment fund to $5 million,” she said. “Our income disappeared during the pandemic. A huge part of my job is raising funds.”

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Pat was born in Elmwood, NJ, and educated at Sacred Heart University, as well as earning certificates from Harvard Business School, Hodges University and the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of Leadership Marco and Greater Naples and was named Marco Eagle Volunteer of the Year in 2016.

Pat Rutledge is a member of many island organizations, and in 2018-19 served as president of the Marco Island Rotary Club Noontime, winning a district award as President of the Year for small clubs. Her successor as club president, Linda Sandlin, said that Rutledge exemplifies the spirit of Rotary.

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“Pat generously shares her expertise. She lives the Rotary motto, ‘service above self,’” said Sandlin. Her accolades were echoed by Marco Island City Council Chair Jared Grifoni.

“Pat’s an amazing lady who puts her heart and soul into the Historical Society,” he said, crediting her with helping the historical museum becoming “the nicest attraction on Marco Island to visit and learn about our history.”

If you go

Marco Island Historical Museum

  • 180 S. Heathwood Drive, Marco Island
  • 239-252-1440
  • 9 a.m.-4p.m., Tue.-Sat.