April 29, 2012 at 6:30 AM
A Philadelphia docent builds memories at historic Carpenters’ Hall
Historic Carpenters’ Hall docent reflects on 9/11 and why he does what he does.
PHILADELPHIA – Al Evans was working his morning shift at a Philadelphia branch of PNC Bank on September 11, 2001, when two commercial jetliners flew into New York City’s World Trade Center 100 miles to the northeast. Car traffic was permanently shut down close to any number of Philadelphia’s historical sites around the Liberty Bell, and Evans was hesitant to go in for his four-hour shift as a volunteer tour guide at nearby Carpenters’ Hall on September 23, 2001.
“Independence Hall was all roped off and there was this incredible eerie feeling in here,” Evans said of the meeting place of the First Continental Congress in 1774. “A lot of folks were afraid to go anywhere, but I was determined to be here for people who want to learn more about what this country is all about.”
At age 72, Evans is in his 11th year at Carpenters’ Hall. He points to his Volunteer of the Year award from the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce eight years ago as the turning point for his post-9/11 fears. His warm sense of humor often disarms those who don’t see it coming.
“Somebody who’s never been here will tell me how the oldest building in their town was built in 1875, and I’ll say ‘Hey, I can top that.’”
Evans smiled at his joke as the lady behind the front desk chuckled. Carolyn Bennett, as it turned out, was Philadelphia’s Volunteer of the Year in 1999 and has worked this location for 18 years. “I’m proud to say I was the one who talked Al into becoming a Sunday volunteer,” she said. “I open this place up every weekend and marvel at all the young children who come in and go ‘Wow.’”
A wide-eyed 6-year-old boy roamed up to the display case of oversized coins, placed both of his small hands on the glass and asked, “Were coins really this big way back then?” Bennett smiled and replied, “No, but they sure were worth a lot more.” The boy excitedly ran back to his dad to let him know what he just learned.
“I love seeing all these kids who come in here,” said Evans, who needs two knee replacements following his most recent surgery in January. “I truly enjoy doing what I’m doing. So long as I’m able to get around on these two bad knees of mine, I’ll be here. That’s for sure.”
Evans made his way over to a bookshelf. The book he picked up was John Cotter’s illustrated masterpiece, The Buried Past, about the rich history just waiting to be discovered beneath all of our feet.
“This place sure feels like home,” Evans said as he welcomed two more visitors into his “home” for a tour. “I really enjoy learning as much from them as they learn from me.”
E-mail Thor Tolo: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @thortolo