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Nheena Weyer Ittner, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum in Marquette, is a Superior Woman. The museum is the visionary child of Weyer Ittner, who conceived it, gave birth to it and has raised it from infancy into one of the most outstanding institutions in the Upper Peninsula.
By Dale Hemmila
Nheena Weyer Ittner has four groups of very special children in her life: her biological children; her visionary child; the children who belong to other parents; and now, two very young children who have a strong pull on her heart strings.
Weyer Ittner is the director and the heart and soul behind the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum, her visionary child, catering to the kids who belong to other families, since 1997.
Tucked into a corner of downtown Marquette, Michigan, the museum is a place where kids run as free as their imaginations and howls of laughter can be heard all day long. Designed by kids, it is a place for fun and learning where “kids can be kids.”
The museum would not exist without Weyer Ittner’s vision and commitment.
A transplant to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from downstate Midland, Weyer Ittner was a high school art teacher at Ishpeming High School in the late 1980s, doing what she could to “open up the world for kids.”
“We took a couple of trips to big cities (Chicago and Toronto) to expose the kids to live theatre and museums,” she recalled. “We had a blast and made amazing memories. Some of the kids had never ridden an elevator or rode on an escalator. I adored exposing them to new things.”
But then she began feeding a germ of an idea in the back of her mind.
“Right around that time I had a hankering to start a children’s museum,” she said recently while seated at her repurposed desk in an office filled with photos, drawings and loads of bric-a-brac collected, mostly from kids, over the years. “But I had never been in the world of non-profits and I had a lot to learn.”
That learning curve was not intimidating enough to deter her from her dream. She had to learn everything, from fundraising to grant writing, to building maintenance, and more. But when it came to museum design, she passed that off to the children.
“That was the epiphany,” she said. “Because we didn’t have resources, we had to be creative.”
So the children designed areas where you can fly a pretend airplane, flush yourself down a giant toilet, drive a pretend mining truck, work in a pretend store, and much more.
“Because we are all about imagination, what we have, is what kids love,” Weyer Ittner said.
Probably very little of the museum is what Weyer Ittner herself imagined when the idea was formalized in 1991. It took six more years of pitching the idea to the community, deciding to carry most of the plan forward on her own, and forging a relationship with the Kellogg Foundation for early funding — she calls former Kellogg Foundation Regional Director Judy Watson Olson a key mentor — for the idea to go from concept to opening, and provide her with what she calls “my third child”: the visionary one.
While doing all that, she was raising her own two daughters, both of whom are now grown and out of the nest.
Daughter Ricci lives in Austin, Texas, and has followed her mother’s footsteps within the nonprofit world, working as a grant writer.
Her daughter Ilsa, a family physician, lives in East Lansing with her physician husband, Andy Taylor, and are parents to Weyer Ittner’s two heart-string-pulling grandchildren, Mattias, three and Sauli, born in early 2018.
“I was not eager to become a grandparent; it made me feel old,” she said with a laugh. “But when I held my grandson in my arms, I was overwhelmed with love and the wonder of it all. When I was a young mom, I worried about everything, every little detail, but now I realize how insignificant those worries were. As a grandparent, I don’t sweat the little things; instead I marvel over them. Watching my grandsons grow is amazing; they’re absolutely beautiful. Life is awesome. I adore it when that little guy jumps into my arms, or when our newborn coos and makes his little sounds. I melt.”
Like most grandparents whose grandchildren live far away, Weyer Ittner feels the drawback of separation.
“I haven’t wanted to retire because I long for the day when they both can say, ‘I want to go to grandma’s children’s museum,’” she said. “That would make me feel so proud and happy. Mattias has been here a few times and has had a lot of fun. He’s three now and I know when he comes again, he’ll see it all anew. I just wish they lived closer. I look forward to Sauli’s first visit, maybe this summer.”
In the meantime, while living on Lake Superior with her husband, Neil Cumberlidge, this Superior Woman remains in awe of her surroundings, and the lake, and what she has accomplished.
“The lake is a member of the family who we live with every day; we adjust to its varied moods and adapt accordingly…we marvel daily at its beauty, during every season,” she said. “I feel so lucky. Just like other family members, I can’t imagine it not being in my life.”
All in all, Marquette and the U.P. have been good to Weyer Ittner, and she has been good for them.
“I never expected to live in the U.P. and when I first moved here in 1980, it was such a different place than it is now,” she said.
“Marquette has improved dramatically since those early years. I am proud that I’ve contributed in making Marquette a special place. I feel lucky that I was able to live in a place where I could make a positive change happen. I love Marquette and will never leave. I travel the world now, with my husband, Neil, but it’s home that we love the most. We live in the best place in the world.”
For more information about the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum, or to donate, please visit: www.UPChildrensMuseum.org