Richard Norton Smith is leaving his
job running the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and
Museum and the private foundation that supports it.
Smith told foundation board members Tuesday afternoon
in Chicago that he will become a scholar in residence at
George Mason University in Virginia.
After falling two years behind on his biography of
Nelson Rockefeller and having spent nearly 20 years
administering five presidential libraries and one
political center, Smith was ready for a change, he said
in a telephone interview while on his way back to
Springfield from Chicago.
"The fact that the book is two years behind schedule
corresponds very deeply to the two years I've spent in
Springfield," Smith said. "There are only 24 hours in a
day, and the (library and museum) job, the way I think
it requires, tended to take up most of those 24 hours."
Smith's feeling that he has fulfilled his mission
here also motivated him to pursue other opportunities.
"I privately decided before the (museum) dedication
(in April) that I'd be gone by the first anniversary,"
he said. "I'll be stepping off of a cliff (from a)
well-defined office environment into a much more fluid,
non-structured environment. I'll be my own boss."
Smith arrived in Springfield in the fall of 2003 with
a reputation as a savvy, tireless promoter with a
perfectionist's streak who organized crowd-pleasing
events and drew prominent speakers.
One of his first acts as executive director was to
change the presidential museum's blueprints, doubling
the space of the temporary exhibit gallery. He is
credited with bringing President Bush to Springfield for
the opening of the museum in April and with drawing
top-selling historians to Springfield - especially David
McCullough, who spoke in October.
Smith also used friendship with historians,
politicians and media insiders, such as C-SPAN founder
Brian Lamb, to focus a spotlight on the new museum. As a
familiar talking head on television, Smith's credibility
challenged historians and critics who ridiculed the
museum as a theme park.
"He knows a lot of people we wouldn't have had access
to," said former Gov. Jim Edgar, chairman of the
foundation. "The library and museum would have been
successful no matter what, but it was much more so since
he was here. He was icing on the cake."
Although Smith had initially estimated that the
museum might draw as many as 400,000 people its first
year, the 500,000th visitor entered the museum last
week, nine months after it opened.
Smith himself admitted that his approach and temper
created friction in Springfield. He contended that staff
members from the former Illinois State Historical
Library belonged to a bureaucracy that resisted his
efforts to transform the institution into the Lincoln
Presidential Library. He sometimes clashed with museum
and library staff, state government regulators and
public officials who struggled to keep up with him or
disagreed with his ideas.
Smith's salary also raised eyebrows. He was paid
about $150,000 to head the library and museum and,
though the exact amount was never disclosed, made about
the same as head of the foundation.
"A great deal of work, some of it corrective, more of
it creative, has necessarily been telescoped into these
crowded years," Smith wrote to Gov. Rod Blagojevich in
his letter of resignation. "As it happens, the ALPLM is
the sixth institution - the last two of them start-ups -
for which I have been responsible since 1987. Having
done what you asked me to do in 2003, I believe the time
has come to do other things."
But Smith also credited the hard work of many that
went into the museum.
"I feel great pride in what a lot of people have
collectively been able to achieve. The success we see
over the last nine months reinforces that," Smith said.
Most of the board members were surprised by Smith's
announcement Tuesday, although a few had been told in
advance, including Edgar.
"I tried to talk him out of it," said Edgar. "He's a
very talented person. I hate to see him go."
Smith, 52, is expected to leave Springfield for
George Mason's Arlington campus near Washington in late
March. There, he'll have more time to finish his
Rockefeller book, a project on which he has spent many
of his off-hours in Springfield. Smith also will
undertake a study of the National Archives and Records
Administration's presidential library system.
Smith never has spent more than a few years at a job,
and his tenure in Springfield was not expected to last
In August, while Smith was in contact with the
planners of New York City's proposed International
Freedom Center at the site of the former World Trade
Center, he met the president of George Mason University,
and the idea of the resident scholar position was
Freedom Center planners were pursuing Smith, but he
told them he was losing interest in administrative work,
and the Freedom Center plans unraveled anyway.
Meanwhile, the opportunity at George Mason continued to
"It's a wonderful school - an entrepreneurial kind of
place - with a dynamic and creative president. They were
accommodating about the contributions I will make,"
He plans to present a lecture series on the American
presidency in the spring of 2007.
Before coming to Springfield, Smith opened the Dole
Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. Prior
to that, he directed the Ford, Reagan, Hoover and
Eisenhower presidential libraries. He has written books
about George Washington, Herbert Hoover, Republican
presidential nominee Thomas Dewey and newspaper baron
The foundation has asked Smith to remain a consultant
as it plans events for the library and museum's Lincoln
Bicentenary celebration in 2009.
Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz is expected
to oversee library, museum and foundation operations
during a national search for Smith's replacement.
Pete Sherman can be contacted at 788-1539 or