By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Lisa Vecoli has a pronoun issue. In talking about the Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the U of M, sometimes she says “We,” and other times, she switches to “They.”
Both are correct, in a sense, because Vecoli, who grew up in the University’s Immigration History Research Center where her father worked for 37 years, has served twice as the Tretter Collection Curator. She also named the Tretter in her will.
Yet, the Tretter represents her third career. “I ended up at the archive by accident, and it was magical. I had no training.” An unexpected benefit, says the one-time community organizer? “I didn’t have any bad habits to unlearn.”
“You’re hungry to get some context for your lifestyle, your history. … The Tretter is the one place that gives them a sense of belonging and continuity.”
—Lisa Vecoli, on the experience of student employees at the Tretter.
In early autumn, the abundant foliage along the Mississippi River glows red and yellow and purple, mirroring the Pride flag hanging beside Vecoli’s front door. Her den is lined with books — she owns more than a thousand pulp paperbacks featuring women loving women, most from the 1950s. They typically end with a woman marrying a man, she notes, yet in their day, these books showing women holding hands on their covers were sold in drugstores and variety stores all over the country. She also owns thousands of contemporary lesbian novels — written by and for lesbians, usually with happy endings.
Vecoli says she was in the right place at the right time when she took the Tretter job the first time in 2012. Although she has no degree in history or library science and no formal training in being an archivist or curator, she brought her passion as an lesbian activist and her understanding of the need to better organize all the amazing materials that Jean-Nickolaus Tretter had collected over the years.
Perhaps the highlight of Vecoli’s two stints at Tretter was her leadership in creating, developing, and managing the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project. Starting in 2015, the project focused on documenting the experiences of transgender and gender-queer people in the Upper Midwest. Vecoli hired Andrea Jenkins, who conducted nearly 200 interviews covering identity, family, love, and experiences. These oral histories are posted online.
In November 2017, Jenkins became the first openly transgender African-American woman elected to public office when she won the Eighth Ward seat on the Minneapolis City Council.
Focusing on students
Even before she worked at Tretter, Vecoli and her wife, Marjean Hoeft, put the archive in their will.
“There are many good causes, but this one was the perfect combination of passion and impact,” says Vecoli. “I knew the amount of money we have to give could make a real tangible difference in an organization the size of the Tretter Collection.”
Students will benefit from her bequest, Vecoli says, and “my donation will really have an impact.” She figures the money will hire a few student employees — and their experiences at Tretter could change their lives.
“You’re hungry to get some context for your lifestyle, your history,” Vecoli says of the student employees who would work for Tretter and then never want to leave. One recent student employee, for example, came back to the collection for a summer as a volunteer.
“The Tretter is the one place that gives them a sense of belonging and continuity,” she adds.
It is that “transformational impact” that the Tretter has on students that Vecoli, after she is gone, wants to support. The Tretter transformed her life, after all.
When, as a board member, she was involved in the Tretter’s acquisition of the Michael McConnell Papers, the archival collection of Michael McConnell and Jack Baker — who in 1970 became the first couple in the United States to apply for a same-sex marriage license — Kris Kiesling, Director of the U’s Archives and Special Collections, said to Vecoli: “You should stay.”
After thinking about it for a weekend, she decided to take the position and began to tackle a rather daunting task of organizing mountains of materials.