Joan Mercuri started off as a volunteer at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in 1987. More than 20 years later, she’s retiring as president and CEO of the organization that oversees the famous architect’s home in Oak Park.

Despite her ascendance to the top position of the nonprofit, Mercuri hasn’t been afraid to go back to her roots. On one busy day at the Home and Studio a few years ago, she offered to give tours to help with a logjam. She’s considering going back to volunteering for the trust.

“It’s great fun, but I just don’t want to be seen as someone here looking over another person’s shoulder, second guessing them. I think that would be unfair,” Mercuri said.

Mercuri has overseen a wealth of change at the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust over the past 14 years. Since she took over as leader, the trust has changed its name, has started overseeing Wright’s Robie House in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and has staged a more international presence.

“She’s just been a great shepherd for the organization and really helped us to grow into the leader in this field that we are, recognized not just regionally but nationally and internationally,” said James Schiefelbein, board chair for the trust. “She’s a class act.”

Mercuri, a River Forest resident, had lived in Oak Park in the 1970s, but moved back from Richmond, Va., in 1987 when her husband, Lou, an oral surgeon, took a job here. She’s originally from Buffalo.

She started off as a volunteer in 1987 and later had two stints as interim president and CEO after previous leaders left. During her second run, people in the organization started pushing her to try out as its permanent leader. Oak Parker John Thorpe, who was on the trust’s board at the time that Mercuri was hired, liked her financial background and the respect she got from volunteers. The move has paid off, Thorpe said, as Mercuri has been the longest-running leader with the trust, taking up nearly half of its 35-year history.

“We had a big staff at the time, but we didn’t have a clear leader. We had her fill in and I think peopled liked what she was doing,” Thorpe said. “She grew into the job quickly.”

Mercuri credits her success to being able to delegate and rely on the specialties of her staff and volunteers. She stayed around the organization for so many years because there’s constant change.

“I love it when my head is spinning,” Mercuri says with a laugh.

Acquiring Robie was a big moment for the organization, volunteer Gary Wood says of the milestone in 1997.

“There was a lot of concern when the Robie House was acquired, but she was a visionary, and I think she recognized that the it would bring a whole set of new dynamics to the organization, so we weren’t just looked at as a parochial, Oak Park- and River Forest-centered organization,” said Wood, a former board member for the trust who has been involved with the organization for more than 20 years.

Along with claiming she once saw a ghost turning on a light in the Home and Studio, Mercuri said one of her most vivid memories was seeing a group of fourth graders talking excitedly after touring the museum.

“It just reminds you of why you’re here and why you do this because they’ve learned a lot, they’re having fun and they’ll remember it,” she said. “I often come out here in the courtyard and just talk to people and say, ‘Where are you from? Why did you come here?’ It reminds you why this is important.”

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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