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A Copley Newspaper
Serving Central Illinois
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Executive director moving on
Smith to devote more time to book

Published Wednesday, January 25, 2006

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 long.

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 discussed.

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 interest Smith.

"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," Smith said.

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 Robert McCormick.

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 pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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