Jeff Nichols To Head Thomas Jefferson's Plantation Retreat
By STEVEN GOODE
June 29, 2012
HARTFORD —— Jeff Nichols, executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum, is resigning his position with the Hartford landmark.
Nichols, who guided the organization through financial troubles related to the construction of its $18 million visitors center and the embezzlement of more than $1 million by a former employee, will become president and chief executive officer of Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's plantation retreat near Lynchburg, VA.
In a statement released Friday morning, Gregory Boyko, president of the Twain House board of trustees, said Nichols' tenure had been a memorable one that culminated with the museum seeing record-breaking attendance the last two years.
"The board and staff of the museum are deeply sorry to see Jeff go," Boyko said.
Nichols, 41, who started at the Twain House 11 years ago as education director and led the organization for the past five years, said Friday that it was the right time to move on.
"I'm very excited for the opportunity to work for another American icon," Nichols said.
Patti Phillipon, who is the Beatrice Auerbach chief curator of the Twain museum, will serve as interim director, and the board has formed a search committee to find a permanent replacement, Boyko said.
Nichols said he was most proud of the way the Twain organization "weathered severe storms and put itself on a path of strong growth and attendance during challenging economic times."
"I'm proud of the staff and know I'm leaving it in capable hands," he said, adding that the next phase for the Twain House will be to continue to grow attendance and focus on fundraising.
In 2003, the museum opened its new visitors center, but was beset by cost overruns, increased expenses and lower than anticipated attendance.
By 2006 the organization was forced to restructure its debt related to the project and received a $3.5 million grant from the state to avoid bankruptcy.
In 2008, facing a $350,000 shortfall in its operating budget, and despite receiving a $50,000 grant from United Technologies Corp. and a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanites, the organization was forced to lay off 33 of its 50 employees.
Its financial troubles were exacerbated by the discovery, in June 2010, that the organization's controller had been embezzling. An investigation revealed that Donna Gregor had stolen more than $1 million between 2002 and 2010. Gregor was sentenced to 42 months in prison in November 2011 and ordered to repay the money she stole.
Nichols, who expects to leave the Twain House by the end of July and begin in Virginia by September, said the embezzlement did not factor into his decision to leave.
"It really was a personal decision," he said. "I wouldn't have left if the organization wasn't stable."
The Poplar Forest, Nichols said, has some similiarities to the Twain House at the time he took over as director.
"They're at the next stage of their development. They need to grow programs and attendance," he said.
The 577-acre venue is a National Historic Landmark and was recently added to the United States' nominations list to become a World Heritage site.
Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha inherited the plantation from her father in 1773 and took refuge there when they left Monticello to elude British capture in 1781. After Jefferson retired from public life, Poplar Forest provided significant income and a setting to pursue his passions for reading, writing, studying and gardening. The property was sold after his death and fell into disrepair in the late 20th century, before being rescued by a grassroots effort.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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