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Museum director knows her polkas, Czech-Slovak heritage

Cecilia Rokusek looks forward to spreading the word about Cedar Rapids 'treasure'

CEDAR RAPIDS — Former college professor, dean, vice president, provost and president, Cecilia Rokusek is shifting from a career in higher education to museum management.

Rokusek, now the provost and CEO at Larkin University in Miami, will become the new president and CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) in Cedar Rapids on Sept. 1. She succeeds Gail Naughton, who is retiring after 16 years leading the museum.

Rokusek is a fourth-generation Czechoslovak. She grew up speaking Czech and playing polkas and waltzes on the accordion. Her home was filled with Czech and Slovak traditions during the holidays. And she was a regular at the annual Czech Days celebration in her hometown of Tabor, S.D.

She is excited about sharing that rich cultural heritage with as many people as possible.

Q: You called this position the “pinnacle” of your career in a July 20 Gazette article. Why?

A: I learned at an early age the importance of cultural heritage and preservation of traditions. The NCSML radiates that preservation and to be part of it — and to help guide and lead it with a great team of professionals, staff, volunteers, board members and the entire Cedar Rapids community — is truly a “pinnacle” in which I can combine my experiences in higher education and in the promotion of and love for my Czech and Slovak heritage.

Q: How did you hear about the CEO position, and what attracted you to it?

A: Several months ago, friends and colleagues were telling me that Gail Naughton was planning to retire and that I should consider applying. As someone dedicated to my Czech and Slovak roots, I have long been a fan and supporter of the museum. Gail and her team and those early visionaries who started the museum and library have done an incredible job of building an international center for preservation of Czech and Slovak culture and history that is for everyone.

A national museum and library must also be of interest to everyone, not just those of a certain ethnic background. I truly believe that is what the NCSML has done and will continue to do in the future at the local, regional, national and international levels.

Q: How do you plan to help the museum and library better engage with the community in Cedar Rapids?

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A: We are so fortunate in Cedar Rapids to have three institutions of higher learning that I look forward to working with to bridge opportunities with the museum and with institutions of higher learning in the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. These collaborations can provide for rich exchanges of students, faculty, scholars and visitors to the museum from Europe.

In addition, I envision opportunities for our elementary and high school students to continue to become engaged in the museum and even have dialogue with students from the Czech and Slovak republics.

Q: How do you plan to better engage with the national and international community of Czech and Slovaks?

A: We have such a cultural gem in Cedar Rapids with the museum, yet there are many people — not only in Iowa but in our surrounding states and other states with large Czech and Slovak populations — who have never been to this national treasure. I would like to reach out to communities with concentrated populations of Czechs and Slovaks. ... Many of these states have festivals and rich Czech and Slovak centers or organizations. ...

On the international front, Czechs and Slovaks are traveling to the U.S. so much more now. ... The Midwest has so much to offer these international travelers, and Cedar Rapids can be part of their travel itinerary with time spent at our NCSML and Czech Village.

I also see great potential engaging international scholars, lecturers, entertainers and artists with the NCSML, the community and region.

Q: How did you find yourself in the position of Slovak honorary consul for Florida?

A: In 2007, I received a call from the Slovak Embassy in Washington, D.C., saying that I had been nominated to serve as Slovak consul for Florida. The ambassador at the time (Rastislav Kacer) asked if I would like to accept the nomination, which meant lengthy interviews in both D.C. and Bratislava, Slovakia, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I said I would be interested, and the rest is history.

Q: Moving from Florida to Iowa is a big change — how are you planning to navigate the transition?

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A: In some ways, this is like coming home. I grew up in the Midwest and spent over half my life there. I moved to Florida because my parents wanted to come here to retire. Whenever we visited the Midwest, I always said we were going home. ... When I visited Cedar Rapids during my interview, I was so impressed with the city and its great restaurants, art and theater. I still have a lot of family in South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.

l Comments: (319) 368-8514; molly.hunter@thegazette.com

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