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Retired National Park Service senior conservator Toby Raphael dies

November 05, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- A jacket owned by Red Cloud. A dress worn by the Sioux war chief's wife. Bear skin and lion skin rugs owned by Theodore Roosevelt. George Washington's tent. John Brown's Bible. Leather steamer trunks of immigrants passing through Ellis Island. Even advice on how to illuminate the Mona Lisa.

All of these, plus countless more artifacts -- most in the care of America's national parks and museums as well as those of nations across the world -- have felt the hands and expertise of Toby Raphael, retired National Park Service senior conservator who died Wednesday at his home in Shepherdstown.

Raphael's death at age 58 left his family and friends in shock. Survivors include his wife, Hali Taylor, head librarian at Shepherdstown Public Library, and sons, Jonathan, 23, of Boston and Seth, 26, of Monterey, Calif.

He was born in Hollywood in 1951, and graduated with double bachelor's degrees in visual arts and Latin American studies from the University of California-San Diego in 1973, and a master's degree in museum studies from George Washington University in 1977.

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Until earlier this year, Raphael worked as a museum specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. From 1978 to 2007, he held positions from museum specialist to senior conservator at the National Park Service's Harpers Ferry Center in Charles Town, W.Va., work that had him crisscrossing the country from national park to national park throughout his NPS career conserving historic artifacts.

"I saw what Toby was doing and tried to follow in his footsteps," said Susan Page of Takoma Park, Md., a senior paper conservator at The National Archives. "He had a good formula for success. Toby set the standard for conservation of museum objects."

Considered by some experts to be the foremost leather conservator, Raphael wrote "Exhibition Conservation Guidelines," a guidebook for use in the field "that affected conservation around the world," said Theresa Voellinger, also an NPS paper conservator and colleague of Raphael's. "It's the first book of its kind to put organization on how we think about exhibits as a preservation method."

Voellinger said Raphael traveled extensively in Central and South America as well, often at his own expense, to help Spanish-speaking conservators and historians working in small museums and institutions to protect and preserve their culture. He was fluent in Spanish.

"He taught me a lot about hands-on conservation and how to work with leather," said Barbara Cumberland, an NPS objects conservator. "It was a privilege working with Toby all those years."

Raphael's specialty was Native American artifacts. He was also known for his finely worked leather purses.

On the personal side, Raphael enjoyed the companionship of a host of friends, social and professional. His son Seth spoke of his father's penchant for always stepping up to help those in society's lower stratum -- the poor, the working class.

"I've never met anybody with a deeper interest in people," said Bruce Dahlin of Shepherdstown, a longtime family friend.

"Toby was a magnet in drawing people out, caring and passionate about what he believed in. If you weren't in his camp, he let you have it," said Debi Taylor of San Diego, Raphael's sister-in-law. "He inspired us to live a dream, to ask about life, and encouraged us to see and access more of it. He inspired so many people."

Raphael's death "was a real shocker," Al Levitan, another NPS colleague and longtime friend, said in a telephone interview Thursday while on a trip with his wife, Jane, in Alabama. "It's strange being away from the community at a time like this or to talk about Toby in the past tense. Toby left a legacy in his community and in the conservation world. He was a mentor to many. He will be missed by a wide range of people."

Even recently, Raphael was volunteering with the Hispanic Outreach Services sponsored by St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Martinsburg, W.Va., said Elizabeth McGowen of Shepherdstown, a fellow volunteer.

"Toby was my newest best friend," McGowen said. "He was the sweetest, most generous person, a treasure, a pillar in the Shepherdstown community."

Services will be Nov. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Presbyterian Meeting Hall, and followed by a pot luck reception at the Raphael Taylor home on Billmyer Road.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the St. Joseph's Catholic Church Hispanic outreach service program.

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