Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee
Press Release

Retired librarian finds volunteering an important part of her life

Nancy Torphy has been an invaluable volunteer for Historic Milwaukee for the last seven years.

By - Aug 21st, 2017 12:28 pm
Nancy Torphy volunteering at Spaces & Traces in Layton Boulevard West at Ascension Lutheran Church. Photo courtesy of the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee.

Nancy Torphy volunteering at Spaces & Traces in Layton Boulevard West at Ascension Lutheran Church. Photo courtesy of the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee.

“I am continually reminded that our lives and the places where we live those lives are not isolated, but are part of a larger ever-changing history.”

Nancy’s efforts at Historic Milwaukee have helped grow Doors Open Milwaukee to the 4th most highly attended city open house event worldwide. The event attracted over 31,000 visitors and 600 + volunteers in 2016. Further, as a result of Nancy’s efforts to bring HMI’s historic archives to the public library, decades of important HMI work is available to the public for free. Nancy has also taught countless individuals about the power of research, and how to uncover the stories of our past.

What made you become a volunteer?

As I approached retirement following 25 years as a librarian at the Milwaukee Public Library, I realized that I was in the market for a new volunteer activity.  For many years, I had followed the model of my mother and participated as a volunteer in PTA, neighborhood organizations, church activities, political activities, and the wide assortment of volunteer opportunities living in a city afforded me. But it seemed that retirement might call for something new. I love history, art and architecture and research and have done genealogy for years, but people said that you should give it a few months while settling in to the whole retirement thing so I was not rushing in to anything.

Several weeks before my final day at MPL, a fellow librarian and new retiree came in to the neighborhood library where I was working and told me he had the perfect activity for my new life. Historic Milwaukee was going to embark on a project called Doors Open Milwaukee.  He said that he was going to be creating and running this undertaking and he thought that I might be a good candidate to gather up and manage the several hundred volunteers who would be needed. I threw the waiting several months out the window and said YES immediately.

Doors Open 2017

Doors Open 2017

Describe the organization where you volunteer and the work they do.

Historic Milwaukee, Inc. (HMI) is a nonprofit, founded in 1974, whose mission is dedicated to increasing awareness of, and commitment to, Milwaukee’s history, architecture, and the preservation of our built environment.

Using trained volunteers, HMI presents walking tours through Downtown, North Point, Bay View, Brady Street, and the Historic 3rd Ward as well as special tours of churches, Brewers Hill, Schlitz Park, and a Menomonee Valley bike tour.

For 35 years, Spaces and Traces has been a corner stone of HMI.  Every May a Milwaukee neighborhood is selected for a day-long event which focuses on that neighborhood’s history and
architecture.  In recent years Spaces and Traces has gone outside the Milwaukee city limits and featured West Allis, Shorewood and Glendale.

Doors Open Milwaukee will mark its 7th year in September.  For two days, more than 150 buildings will be open for a close examination along with more than 40 ticketed in-depth tours of such wonders as the Milwaukee City Hall Bell Tower, Jones Island, and the Allen Bradley Clock Tower.

What do you do as a volunteer?

In 2010, I began volunteering as a volunteer coordinator for the inaugural Doors Open Milwaukee. Doors Open required over 300 volunteers the first year, and I helped recruit, train and schedule these volunteers at over 80 buildings. As the event has grown and expanded, I also became a building captain managing the volunteers for seven or eight buildings.

Creating house histories for Spaces and Traces was one of the other HMI activities in which I participated. This has developed into my guiding and assisting the Spaces and Traces house researchers as they create house histories.  Now this has expanded even further into presenting House History classes for HMI members who are interested in a closer examination of their own homes.

How long have you been a volunteer?

Seven years.

What surprised you the most about volunteering?

How strong my commitment to HMI has become over the relatively short time I have been a volunteer.

What new things have you learned through this volunteer opportunity?

I have always loved working with people, but I have also discovered a great personal enjoyment in working with and learning about the buildings, the neighborhoods and the city of Milwaukee as a whole.

Has it changed your view of the world in any way? Has it changed your view of the community?

I am continually reminded that our lives and the places where we live those lives are not isolated, but are part of a larger ever-changing history.

Has volunteering helped you? Has it had benefits for you?

Being an HMI volunteer keeps me “out there” as part of the community in which I live.

What are you most proud of?

Recently I had the opportunity to connect Milwaukee Public Library and HMI in a concrete way. Over the years, HMI had amassed several hundred house histories written by volunteers for Spaces and Traces. A colleague and I suggested that these histories needed a better home so that the public could take advantage of the information available.  HMI allowed us to have the many boxes of histories transferred to the Art, Music and Recreation Room at the Central Library and we listed and added each house history to the Architecture Files kept there. By providing an address, the public is able the see the sort of research which is available on a building of interest.

Would you recommend volunteering to others? If so, what would you tell them is the benefit they’d get from volunteering?

I would always recommend volunteering to others. Being a volunteer has been such an important part of my life and would hope that others might take the opportunity to try it out. What volunteers do adds immeasurably to the various organizations that depend on volunteers, but it also adds to our communities and our city and the quality of all of our lives.

How would you suggest someone begin if they want to volunteer?

Think about what you really like to do and what really interests you.  Contact the organization in which you might be interested and investigate the sorts of volunteer opportunities which might be available. Begin small and see if it is right for you. Who knows where it will lead.

Volunteers are needed for Doors Open Milwaukee, September 23 and 24. Join hundreds of Historic Milwaukee volunteers to help make the seventh annual Doors Open Milwaukee a success! Doors Open offers behind the scenes experiences at over 160 buildings throughout metro Milwaukee. Volunteers help greet and count visitors at each featured site throughout the weekend. Sign up now. For questions, email or call 414-2777795.

The Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee is a membership association serving over 500 nonprofit and corporate members and the nonprofit sector at large. The Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee promotes the interests and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector through strengthening organizational capacity, expanding volunteerism and encouraging collaborations. Its programs include training and consulting, Volunteer Milwaukee, financial management, and Jobs that Serve. For more information visit

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