Utah history division chief always embraced diversity

Published: Saturday, April 2 2011 10:01 p.m. MDT

Phil Notarianni, shown at the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City, retired as director of the Utah State Division of History on Thursday. He spent nine years leading the department.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Phil Notarianni grew up in Magna as the son of Italian emigrants in an era when that mattered — and not always in a good way.

Cultural diversity was part of life in Magna; Notarianni had friends who were Jewish, Greek, Croatian, Slovenian and more; but with that diversity sometimes came prejudice.

"I knew I was different; one father told me I couldn't date his daughter because I wasn't a Mormon."

But he also knew he had opportunities he wouldn't have had if his parents had stayed in Italy. "My generation is living the dream our parents had."

Looking back, he also appreciates how the multicultural aspects of his childhood provided a rich tapestry for the backdrop of his life.

Although a high school counselor advised Notarianni that he "wasn't college material," and should get a job at Kennecott instead, he was determined to prove the counselor wrong. He tried an engineering major, but when he took a required history class, he found his true calling. And when a mentor encouraged him to do a thesis on Italians in Utah, he found an area — ethnic history — that would become a lifelong passion.

On April 1, Notarianni retired after 34 years at the Utah State Division of History, and nine years as its director. Wilson G. Martin has been appointed acting director.

Notarianni leaves knowing that society now values diversity much more; that culture and ethnicity are not only respected but encouraged.

"Are we perfect? No. Will we ever reach the ideal, where everything's perfect? Probably not," he says. "But I do think that now we deal with people in a more understanding way. If we can establish better understanding amongst each other, that rubs off in a lot of ways. I see great benefit for the future."

Interestingly, he says, "some of the rhetoric we read in the papers these days about how immigrants are taking away jobs and sending money home instead of spending it here, are the same things you read in the papers in 1910.

But the more we can understand each other, the more we can value people for who they are, not who we think they are."

Throughout his career, Notarianni has worked in many different departments at the Division of History, including archives, museums, folklore and publications, but his emphasis has remained on ethnic history. It has a lot of different aspects, he says. It takes you into mining history, which deals with the whole gamut of ethnic groups — Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Chinese, Japanese, Finns, Slovaks, Koreans and more It takes you into material culture and historic site research.

"I've always tried to get involved in all the things that comprise history, and for me, that is everything. How we live, how we communicate, linguistics, architecture, politics, religions, economics, folklore, sociological studies.

It's important that Utah history encompass diversity," he says. "That's who we are." His goal has always been to put a face on history. "History is about people — all people."

Notarianni pays tribute to Helen Papanikolas, who was one of the first to focus on the cultural diversity of the state. "She was a mentor for a lot of us." He has also taught classes in Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah. A favorite project in his classes has been having his students do face-to-face interviews with people of different ethnic groups. "When you find yourself talking to a person, you learn they have values, reasons why they do things. You learn not to judge them superficially." Teaching is something he hopes to continue with, after his retirement.

Another thing that Notarianni has been proud of accomplishing during his tenure as state history director is the digitizing of many of the state's records to make them more accessible to a wider group of people.

"All our publications are now online. We have about 50,000 photos online. We have catalogues, National Register forms, resources for teachers, sites for kids, a cemetery database and more."

That has made a huge difference in research and study capabilities, he says. "When I first came here, if we got 20,000 visitors a year, that was incredible. Now we get a million hits on our website"

Notarianni is proud of the continuing quality of the Historical Quarterly, which is published by the division, and of which he serves as editor.

"Taking an active role there helps me keep up with current scholarship. The Quarterly is still very well respected, well used," he says.

And he is pleased with partnerships with other religious, cultural and historical organizations that have developed over the years. "We're all in this together," he says.

People need to realize, he says, "that history is important, that it has a place in our lives, that it is not only our past, but our present and our future."

Email: carma@desnews.com

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS