BOZEMAN — Barbara Keremedjiev suffered a terrible blow when her husband George Keremedjiev died unexpectedly after heart surgery in November.
“After the initial shock . I thought, what am I going to do?” Barbara said.
Leave Bozeman? Go live near the grandkids?
Despite her shock and grief, she quickly decided she would stay and fight to sustain and expand her husband’s creation — the American Computer & Robotics Museum.
On Jan. 2, she reopened the free, nonprofit museum, which had been closed since her husband’s death Nov. 17.
“This museum has to be a living legacy to George,” said Barbara, 63.
“This was his love, his passion. He gave it everything. I could not imagine this not continuing,” she told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
After conferring with family, supporters and friends at Montana State University, her goal now is to make the small but well-respected museum larger, self-sustaining and professionally staffed by 2021.
“He would be very pleased,” she said.
In a few short weeks, she has expanded the nonprofit museum’s board of directors from four to 10 members to include people with expertise in high-tech, finances, management, fundraising, grant writing and other fields.
Museum consultant Art Wolf, a former Museum of the Rockies director and good friend of George’s, offered to help for free. And they have developed a three-part plan.
First, they’re raising enough money this month to run the museum for the rest of this year and to hire an executive director. The only change this year will be to the exhibit that honors the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first walk on the moon.
Second, they’ll spend several months putting together a long-range strategic plan for the museum’s future, which will include a financial plan and finding a larger space to display more of the collection that’s in storage. And finally, once the master plan is ready to show people, they’ll go out to raise serious funds to make that dream a reality.
“We’re making wonderful progress,” Barbara said. “I’ve been working nonstop. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
The museum, which the Keremedjievs founded in 1990, documents and explains humanity’s inventions in communications and computing, from an actual 4,000-year-old Babylonian clay tablet to one of the last surviving mainframe computers used by NASA at the time of the Apollo Moon mission. It has one of the first Apple computers, donated by company co-founder Steve Wozniak, plus exhibits on robots, artificial intelligence and women in computing.
USA Today readers voted it in 2016 as one of the nation’s top 10 free museums. A hand-written note from famed Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson called it “inch for inch the best museum in the country.”
George Keremedjiev, who worked around the world as a manufacturing consultant, was the museum’s “guiding force,” Barbara said. He did the research and created exhibits to explain complex ideas so anyone could understand them, while she gave tours and trained students and volunteers.
He found joy in learning new things and educating others about the history of technology and the people behind the magical inventions that we take for granted, she said. “He wanted people to . enjoy learning and be fascinated by how it all evolved.”
They met in 1979. She grew up in communist Poland, was educated at Wroclaw University, spoke English and worked as a tour guide. She met a friend, who invited her to visit New Jersey as a tourist, and there one day she met George.
“It was love at first sight,” Barbara said. “It was fascinating talking to him.”
In two weeks they knew they wanted to be together always. He flew to Poland, they got engaged and started the complex paperwork to get married. It took six months but they finally married.
As an immigrant himself, born in Venezuela to Russian parents displaced during World War II, George “loved this county – the beauty, the advancement and freedom of this country,” she said.
More than 200 people attended his November memorial service at Pilgrim Church, which featured the live classical music he loved. Letters were read from Gov. Steve Bullock and from Wilson, who called George “one of the deepest and far-ranging intellects I have ever known” and “among the most warm, sensitive and compassionate human beings.”
People at MSU, where George served on the College of Engineering board of advisors, were a great help, Barbara said.
“I miss George terribly,” she said. “I cry every day.
“I loved him so much. I knew what this meant to him. .I wanted this to be truly, truly the best museum, truly to be a legacy to George.”