Burlington historian has dedicated years to preserving the community’s past for future generations | Local News
BURLINGTON — Don Vande Sand lived in a world of dusty archives and forgotten documents that collectively tell the story of a city.
As the Official Collector of the Burlington Historical Society, Vande Sand has dedicated years to collecting and preserving the stories of Burlington’s people, families, landmarks and events.
Before there was Google, there was Don Vande Sand.
Colleagues at the historical society say Vande Sand has amassed a tremendous amount of information and created a vast repository that is helpful to those seeking to better understand Burlington’s past.
“Don was a real guy – Mr. History,” said Dennis Tully, the organization’s former president.
Vande Sand, a Burlington native who returned home and became an authority on local history after a successful career elsewhere, died Monday at the age of 82.
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Those who knew him remember Vande Sand as an individual who poured his energy into the nonprofit historical society, working hours by himself every day at the group’s offices at 232 N. Perkins Boulevard.
“He did it all,” said Julie O’Neill, the group’s current president. “If the light outside was on, you knew Don was there.”
Born in Burlington near the end of the Great Depression, Vande Sand was the second oldest of seven children born to Aloysius and Henrietta Vande Sand. The family lived in a four-bedroom house on Perkins Boulevard near the current historical society office.
After graduating from Burlington High School in 1957, Vande Sand attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
He then landed a job at the US General Accounting Office and moved to Washington, D.C.
With an accounting certification, he spent the next 30 years analyzing government programs for efficiency or waste.
Retiring in his mid-fifties, Vande Sand returned to Burlington and became interested in a project his father and mother had embraced – the local historical society.
Vande Sand quickly immersed himself in the company’s mission, devouring mountains of old records, photos and other artifacts.
His brother, John Vande Sand, said the work appealed to Vande Sand’s nature as a meticulous analyst who preferred to work independently, away from the public spotlight.
“I think he’s found his groove,” his brother said.
Over the next 20 years, Vande Sand created the company’s website, built a searchable archive, and collected and documented countless historical facts, figures, and images. He went through old telephone books, city directories, maps, vital records and newspapers.
Although he worked as a volunteer without being paid, he logged hours almost every day and welcomed visitors or researchers inside the historical society office. It has become a primary source of information for people researching family history, landowners checking land records, or journalists gathering information for the Racine Journal Times and other news outlets.
“He knew everyone,” Tully said. “No one can compare to Don.”
The private historical society receives funding from the city, but it operates with the financial support of its approximately 140 members, who pay a membership fee of $10 a year.
Vande Sand became vice president of the company. He also served on the 11-member Board of Directors.
He, however, avoided public attention and preferred to stay in the background.
“He was a touch guy,” Tully said.
Vande Sand’s brother agreed, recalling that Vande Sand enjoyed working with other people individually. If anyone was looking for information on Burlington’s history, he was always ready to help.
“I think he had fun opening windows into people’s pasts,” his brother said.
Vande Sand never married, but became a well-known figure in the community, working with the Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Charles Catholic Church, and other organizations. At least one local service club honored with “Man of the Year” award.
As his colleagues deal with Vande Sand’s death, they also grapple with the reality of running the organization without him.
Tully said it is a testament to Vande Sand’s years of hard work that the historical society is able to continue operating after his passing.
“We have a bright future ahead of us,” Tully said.
O’Neill agreed that Vande Sand leaves behind a rich legacy. However, she added, others still working in the historical society may have to accept that he will never be replaced.
“We weren’t done with him yet,” she said. “We had too much to learn from him.”
Photos: From industry to recreation, Burlington’s beloved Echo Lake through the years