Preserving the Past for Future Generations

William B. Worthen, Jr., A.B. '69


To preserve the history and creative legacy of the people of Arkansas is the primary goal of William B. Worthen, Jr. He is director and CEO of the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, a position he has held for almost 30 years.

Although Worthen's degree from Washington University was in psychology, he was also very interested in history. After graduating in 1969, he took a job teaching history in Pine Bluff, Arkansas—in part to defer military service during the Vietnam War. He also volunteered at the museum, then called the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, to write a study guide for teachers. In 1972, he was hired as the museum's first professional director and has served there ever since.

The museum originally opened in 1941, with four early 19th-century buildings located on a half-block in downtown Little Rock. A fifth was added in the 1970s. Worthen says that when he became the director, the institution's leadership thought of the site as a historic preservation project more than as a museum. One of his goals was to move toward the standards and practices of the museum profession.

Worthen calls his first few years "on-the-job training." An early priority was to conduct extensive research to create furnishing plans for the museum houses. He wanted to find out what objects the early settlers had and where things would have been placed in their homes. By interviewing descendants of pioneer Arkansans, and studying such primary sources as probate inventories, bills of lading, and old advertisements, he and his staff made a discovery.

"What we found was that a portion of Arkansas' past was being ignored," says Worthen. "Much of what the early settlers had was actually made in Arkansas." There was a legacy of fine art, gunsmithing, silversmithing, quilting, pottery making, cabinetmaking, and so forth that had not been part of the historical record. This research led to the accumulation of an active collection of Arkansas-made objects from all over the country, which were donated to or purchased by the museum.

Because of Worthen's hard work, in 1981 his institution became the first history museum in the state to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. Ten years later, Worthen produced a two-volume book with co-author Swannee Bennett, Arkansas Made: A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical, and Fine Arts Produced in Arkansas, 1819-1870, published by the University of Arkansas Press. One area of particular study for Worthen is the bowie knife, also known as the "Arkansas toothpick," examples of which can be seen in the museum's Knife Gallery.

By the mid-1990s, the museum's collections had grown and the need arose for a new museum center to house them; the need for additional funding to support the project also arose. In a private, state, and federal partnership, $9 million was raised. The new center opened in April 2001, along with a name change—the Historic Arkansas Museum—to reflect the museum's expanded mission. Besides its historic buildings and collections, the Historic Arkansas Museum also features an award-winning living history program, in which actors portray original residents and involve museum visitors in hands-on activities. Worthen says that his greatest reward has been helping his home state preserve and appreciate a part of its past.

—Cynthia B. Cummings

For more information, please visit the Historic Arkansas Museum at



Discussing the
Quarterlife Crisis

Abby Wilner, A.B. '97


Abby Wilner (right) with Katie Couric

You've probably heard of the mid-life crisis—what can happen between the ages of 40 and 50, because of graying and thinning hair, empty nests, illness, having to care for elderly parents, and career dilemmas.

What you may not have heard of is those who become addled over life's challenges much (much) earlier—in fact, soon after college. These individuals feel stressed due to debt, uninspiring work, no significant other, doubts about their own decision making. Simply put, they wonder whether this is as good as it gets.

Fortunately, for those who believe that misery loves company, soul mates abound, say Washington University alumna Abby Wilner and high-school friend and Yale College graduate Alexandra Robbins.

Together, the two women coined a term to describe the dilemma: "the quarterlife crisis," which they worked into the title of their book Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (Tarcher, 2001).

But the seeds for such a book were planted earlier, back in college when each woman heard that the world would be hers for the taking. "You're told you can accomplish anything," says Wilner, who was photo editor of Student Life while at WU. "Once you start working, you are conflicted with, on the one hand, being given little responsibility and treated like a kid, and, on the other hand, expected to immediately adapt to a new culture of office politics."

Wilner, 25, who grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and now lives in Washington, D.C., graduated in 1997 with a degree in psychology and minors in business and music. It was during her first job after college as an analyst at the American Symphony Orchestra League in D.C. that she became disappointed when she had little to do. "I didn't have much responsibility, there was no room for promotion, and anything I did went unrewarded."

When she expressed her views in confidence to some others her age, she found that they felt the same. "People my age are looking for a lot of fulfillment, both in careers and relationships," she says. "We are cautious and won't settle down with just anything. And there are so many new career options that we don't feel prepared to choose from. This is why the average person has eight jobs before the age 32, and why the average age to get married has gone up to 27."

Inspired by the realization of the commonality of their situation, Wilner and Robbins decided to write a book. The women interviewed several hundred counterparts. They found them through chain e-mails to friends and through friends of friends, through alumni organizations, at parties, offices, and bars. They found a publisher and described the crisis and some solutions—including learning how to compromise. The book landed on the New York Times best-seller list and caught the attention of Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey.

Because the book was garnering such attention, Wilner was not as shaken when she was laid off from a job earlier this year. Thinking about what she wanted to do next, she decided her passion was to continue helping others with similar problems. She now works with support groups, manages a Web site, and speaks at workshops.

She is convinced that since September 11 her message is even more important. "We state in our book that our generation had nothing binding us together. This was the first situation of its kind to affect us on a personal level. We've now learned to be less cynical, more patriotic, and to give back," says Wilner, a Red Cross volunteer.

She also has learned something many grasp only at an older age, if ever. "Relax; try not to worry too much—things eventually fall into place. My misery at my first job led to this book."

—Barbara B. Buchholz