Old west stays alive at the Autry National Center

With a rawhide apron tied around his front and a black leather satchel in his hand, Chuck Merman looked every inch the 19th-century frontier doctor en route to a house call.

When he held up a particularly menacing tool used to extract teeth, the elementary school students who had gathered around him in a gallery at the Autry National Center took a precautionary step back.

“My favorite thing was the leeches,” one girl enthused as she skipped away a few minutes later.

It was just one of thousands of history lessons that the long-time Glendale resident has delivered in his five-decade career in education, first as a teacher with Los Angeles Unified and now as a museum docent.

“History is people, history is about who we are,” 70-year-old Merman said Wednesday between presentations about the practices of doctors during the western expansion of the United States. “It is pretty hard to tell where we are going if we don’t know where we have been.”

Merman is among a cadre of 150 volunteer docents — there are 35 on site on any given day — who help bring the museum’s artifacts to life for the tens of thousands of visitors who pass through each year, said spokeswoman Yadhira De Leon.

Many are school children. Last year, the Autry National Center bused in 14,000 students from Los Angeles Unified and other neighboring districts.

“They all bring their own personalities into it,” De Leon said of the docents. “It is history through a certain perspective, and when they interact with the visitor, the visitor has another perspective and there is a dialogue that happens. There is a spark, and there is that beauty of learning.”

The training is intensive — would-be docents spend three months walking the museum and studying its contents.

“There is so much detail to deal with,” said Merman, who went through the process two years ago and now works with trainees. “To try and get ready for all the questions that pop up is nothing but fun.”

For Merman, the work is an extension of his 34-year classroom career. He taught history at Huntington Park and John Marshall high schools while also serving as athletic director for multiple years at both sites. After retiring in 1997, he worked with the Los Angeles Unified Peer Assistance Program, designed to foster quality classroom instruction.

Missing interacting with students, he joined the team at the Autry.

“Chuck is intelligent, he is articulate, he is engaging,” said fellow docent Sheryl Havered. “He’s got a big heart.”

Merman splits his volunteer hours between leading tours and manning the frontier medicine cart, where he shows visitors the tools of the trade and describes how they were used.

The greatest advantage of educating children in a museum rather than a classroom is having the authentic artifacts on hand to drive the message home, Merman said.

He has learned to adjust the color of his descriptions based on the audience — the bone saw typically stays in the drawer unless he is talking to adults, Merman said. Engaging children requires extra finesse, so he asks lots of questions to hold their attention.

“One of the things I like to impart to kids is we are basically connected, in some way or another, to the founding fathers that we so idolize. They have all the same faults and foibles. You name it, there is something in every family tree,” Merman said.

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