Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Jean Cutler: A 21st-Century Leader’s Definition of Retirement


The April 2013 edition of The Burg featured an article about a coalition of dedicated volunteers with a mission to preserve Harrisburg’s historic black churches.  The author attended a local training program led by Partners for Sacred Places where he learned how these historically significant buildings can serve a larger role in neighborhood revitalization.

Jean_main-photoJean Cutler was in attendance, and was described in the article as “spirited and optimistic.”  She was also quoted as saying “I’m a true believer in integrated historic preservation.”  Jean, this spirited, optimistic, and inspirational community leader will retire as the Director of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office (PA HPO) on June 14, 2013.  But if you believe that retirement from state service will bring rest and relaxation for Jean, you’d be wrong. She has every intention of taking her lessons learned at PHMC and putting them to work in her community, and I recently sat down with her to talk about her time serving the Commonwealth.


As the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) for the past 12 years, Jean’s leadership style can be likened to that of a ‘connect the dots’ activity.  She stays focused on taking essential steps forward while collecting information along the way.   It isn’t uncommon to see Jean’s long-legged stride transect the office armed with an idea of how such-and-such program/organization/strategy can help bolster the PHMC’s historic preservation efforts in Pennsylvania.  She knows first-hand that there aren’t enough people working in state government to be involved in every preservation charge.

I asked her what advice she would give to the next Deputy SHPO.  Her response evoked an inner folklorist.  “Never stop racing like the Malamutes!”  The State Historic Preservation Office needs to be lead mushers by educating the public so that “communities can reach their goals.”  She further emphasized, “Education is the most important thing we do.”  The importance of state government is to provide incentives and related guidance, but she stressed that government programs are not effective when “people do not recognize what they value.”  Historic preservation is a conversation.  Jean believes there should be more effort made to start communication early and plan for preservation accordingly.  Although she’s incredibly proud of fostering strong relationships with various agencies and organizations, she asserted there is a lot left to accomplish.  If you’re interested in the job be prepared to ‘mush’.

Jean SpeakingHer words of wisdom for the next Deputy SHPO also frequently included the word “open.”  “Be open to new ideas”… and “be open to and embrace change”.  “Have an open door for staff” … and “foster open communication and have an open management style.”  If you’ve spent any time with Jean you’ll know that she continuously praises PA HPO staff.  Jean feels her successor will be successful by “staying out of the way.”  “Changes that have occurred have been staff driven.”  When you ask her about her leadership style, she’ll again give a nod to staff.   She feels her views on leadership have evolved and have been enriched by learning from everyone in the office.  She allows the PA HPO’s “program experts” take the lead and she respects everyone’s insight and diverse skills.


Jean is enthusiastic about the National Park Service’s (NPS) 2013 Advisory Board Report, Engaging Independent Perspectives, because it captures her attitude on leadership.  She loaned me her copy and while looking at the highlights I noticed a particular page with multiple asterisks, underlines, and exclamation points surrounding Task 10: Support Leadership Development.  The report makes connections between the role of the NPS and how to expand opportunities through the work they do by increasing public engagement.  The section with the most Jean-applied annotations reads,

Rather than filling a ‘gap’ between the present and the future, new organizational cultures are created by noticing who is already practicing attributes and behaviors of the new culture.

In the past 9+ years I’ve known Jean, she’s always asserted that historic preservation efforts would be more successful if connected to a larger, holistic environmental movement.  Historic preservationists and environmentalists are all striving to protect resources.  Often, these resources are nearly on top of each other (historically, people have lived where there are abundant natural resources).  Task 10 continues by detailing a four-stage process to amplify this work,

naming the exemplars; connecting them to each other; nourishing their work with resources, ideas, time; and illuminating their achievements to inspire others.


In the upcoming year, Jean hopes new leadership will continue to strengthen relationships at the state and local level while exploring ways to comprehensively preserve Pennsylvania’s resources.  Education is key to achieving preservation successes and should be accomplished in concert with the implementation of the Statewide Historic Preservation Plan, Building Better Communities: The Preservation of Place in Pennsylvania.


Jean digging at City IslandWith a stride like Jean’s, you can guess that she has no intention of strolling into retirement.  Her retirement plans?… “Helping Harrisburg become the model for revitalization – it is the capital of the great state of Pennsylvania!”  She’s already aligned with numerous neighborhood initiatives and has infused historic preservation into the heart of each effort.  Her retirement projects range from assisting the Camp Curtin Community Neighborhood United Project capitalize on the area’s railroad and Civil War history to promote civic pride and reinvestment to being actively engaged with Harrisburg’s City Beautiful Conservancy to help citizens become involved in maintaining the city’s public parks.  Jean is faithful to her beliefs and puts them into action.


Recently she picked up a brochure about the Philadelphia Water Department’s rain barrel art contest.  She loved how the project brought the community together to do something fun while helping the environment and uplifting the city.  In true Jean fashion, she started making phone calls to the Harrisburg Authority, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, Community Action Commission, the Urban Green Initiative, Today’s the Day Harrisburg, Jump Street, the Police Athletic League, and the Riverside United Neighbors.  Fifteen Harrisburg kids will paint the barrels and they’ll be sold on June 22 at the Broad Street Market.
Her interests do not end with Harrisburg.  When I asked if there was anything else she’d like do after she retires from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Jean enthusiastically offered, “I would like to create a Pennsylvania tour of cool cities that have made livable communities using their heritage.”


When Jean saw the look of exhaustion on my face she simply replied “we need to keep creating generations of people who care about how history has shaped our communities.  Our role is to create new leaders.”


Jean’s charisma and can-do spirit will be missed in the halls of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office.  Her accomplishments are numerous.  Many of Jean’s ideas are already set in motion, therefore she will be bestowing a fine program to her successor that will continue to benefit the citizens of Pennsylvania.  I wish her joy and fulfillment in her retirement years.

From the entire staff of the PA HPO: "Good luck, Jean. We'll miss you!"

From the entire staff of the PA HPO: “Good luck, Jean. We’ll miss you!”

Author: Andrea L. MacDonald

Andrea L. MacDonald serves as the Director of the PA SHPO and is the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer. Andrea is passionate about Pennsylvania’s food geography and is committed to discovering unique ways to connect Pennsylvanians with their unique history and communities. Andrea is has been with the PA SHPO since 2004.


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