History is a living, breathing thing for Gordon Linge, a Storm Lake native who now heads up Welldone, his museum design firm that is helping to revitalize the hurricane-battered culture of the New Orleans Gulf Coast region.
After cutting his teeth as a driving force behind Santa's Castle display in Storm Lake and working with Witter Gallery and the local historical society, Linge's New Orleans firm has gained a reputation for creating cutting-edge, engagingly "experiential" museum exhibits.
Most recently, he and his company saved the New Orleans Saints NFL team museum, which it had created almost 20 years earlier, after the hurricane floodwaters damaged the original site. In August, Welldone moved the museum to the Superdome, and had the new museum operational in time for the football season.
"It was a real thrill. So many fans had lost things in the flooding, it felt really good to get something up for them to lift their spirits," Linge said.
In a holiday visit to Storm Lake, Linge revisited old haunts like Santa's Castle ("I'm delighted by the longevity of it," he says) and took advantage of the opportunity to listen to visiting presidential candidates.
Returning to New Orleans this week, his plate is full as project that had been planned but interupted by Katrina now begin to take shape.
He is designing the Louisiana 4-H museum to open near Baton Rouge this coming fall during the program's centennial year. His firm is creating the Louisiana State Fisheries Museum in the old pirate haunt bayou region namned for Jean Lafitte, to chronicle life in the fishing villages of Louisiana. And he is working on a river pilot exhibit for the Cresent River Pilot Association - the group that worked through the hurricane to bring ships caught in the storm safely into anchorage.
"We have quite a few projects, diverse and pretty interesting," he said.
"Tourism is critical. A lot of people are afraid to come to the New Orleans region - they don't think things are back up and going. Fortunately, a lot of the historic areas were spared in the hurricane, and the French Quarter was not significantly damaged."
Everyone should visit New Orleans at least once, and Linge issues an invitation for Storm Lakers to see the city's comeback.
"I would just suggest hey come for the first time in a quieter part of the year, and save the Mardi Gras craziness for a later visit."
Like his fellow residents of the Crescent City, Linge feels deep gratitude for all of the people from around the country who came to help clean up - a process in which the government stumbled at every level, he feels.
"I saw a car from Buena Vista County, and I tried to follow it," he laughed, recalling the continuing visits from volunteers.
He said he sees the same kind of grassroots public response on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa. "It impressed me. If you don't get involved from the neighborhood level on up, you will get the kind of government you deserve."
Katrina proved that Gulf Coast residents are a determined bunch, Linge said.
"They want to come back, and there is more pride in the community than ever," he said. "There is more theater in New Orleans than before the storm, more entrepreneurship, more young people finding opportunity, more clean energy project It is a real mission to rebuild, and within 10 years it will be a very remarkable place again...
"It may be the storm that ultiumately saves the city."
There are many hurdles to be cleared yet, and museum projects have taken a back seat to the priorities of getting schools and hospitals reopened.
One of the projects Linge is most proud of is a unique Interstate Welcome Center near Highway 71 (the same highway that runs through his hometown, he notes) west of Baton Rouge. "People think they are coming in for gas and a restroom break, but they find an animated exhibit with a talking turtle, birds and raccoons, and a film feature in its own multimedia theater to interpret the river swamp in that region."
As with all of Welldone's work, the goal is to have people leave feeling they "have had an experience."
"We always approach a project asking what people know already, and what do we want them to know when they leave, then we use creativity and multiple approaches to get there," Linge said.
"Basically, the whole field of museum design is as strong as ever. People are very interested in learning things, they want to try things and experience things," he said. "Anything is possible any more. People want interactive experiennces and different lifestyles, and museums can give those experiences to them."
Back in Storm Lake, Linge finds himself enthusiastic about the future of his hometown, as well.
"I can't believe how many years have gone by with Santa's Castle still delighting people. Witter Gallery is going strong. The Star Spangled Spectacular is great - all of these were developed back in the '70s, and it takes a lot of passion on the part of the citizens to maintain things like this," he said.
"We have to remember that there is always a fresh batch of 3,4,5, 6-year-olds who are experiencing these things for the first time."
Coming home is always exciting, he says. His mother, Esther, still lives in Storm Lake, and the whole far-flung family looks forward to reunions being held here. His son, a cinematography student, has hopes of one day setting a film project in Storm Lake.
Linge paid several visits to King's Pointe municipal resort and waterpark, including a Christmas Day stop. "It is the best thing to happen to Storm Lake in a long, long time. I'd put it right up there with the establishing of the college and the arrival of the railroad in importance."
Along with lake restoration efforts, Storm Lake is well poised for the future and for tourism, he feels.
"Now, the town needs to look at a constant mix of new things to do to draw people in. I think Storm Lake will see a lot more development, centered around the lakefront. You have a wonderful start."