After 26 years at the helm, Lynn Beebe stepping down

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By Tom Wilmoth

    For 26 years Lynn Beebe has served as the driving force behind the rescue of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest retreat in Bedford County.

    She’s learned and lived the life of Jefferson and she’s seen the amount of property Poplar Forest now owns more than double.
    Beebe has helped lead the retreat’s turn from a lost-in-the-woods piece of history to a national attraction.
    Now she’s handing over the reins and the work to Jeffrey L. Nichols, who officially began his duties as the new president of Poplar Forest last week.
    The Poplar Forest Corporation officially formed in 1983 and operated without an executive director for two years. Its first purchase, in 1984, was the house and 49 acres. Now the Corporation has more than 600 acres of Jefferson’s former estate.
    A native of New York, Beebe was at a crossroads in her career when the opportunity to join the fledgling work at Poplar Forest was offered. She had just earned an  MBA and was  torn between pursuing work in that field or the one she loved, preserving history.
    She chose the latter and Poplar Forest was the beneficiary.
    Beebe tackled the job with what now seems like an impossible goal—get the home open to the public in six months. “It’s a good thing I had no idea what it would take (to do that),” Beebe said last week. “I probably would have told the board, ‘That’s crazy.’”
    But, appropriately, on July 4, 1986, the doors were opened.
    “People needed to discover it,” Beebe said of opening the doors to the public. “We needed to find more people to help with the rescue to carry it forward.”
    It was a labor of love—and a lot of hard work—from the start.
    “It was a most exciting thing to be there at the ground level, from the beginning,” Beebe said. “We’ve been through a lot of different eras in the past 26 years.”
    In Beebe’s first year, Poplar Forest had three employees, including herself. In the first year, Poplar Forest was open on the weekends, but was open all summer the following year.
    She said the archaeology work that is ongoing provides an important piece of the puzzle as to what the retreat was like in Jefferson’s day. Beebe said it is like a treasure hunt—and it’s not likely to end anytime soon, noting that similar work has been ongoing at Monticello since the 1920s. “It’s understanding what life was like here,” she said of the archaeological work. “It’s understanding what this place looked like.”
    And understanding Jefferson’s ideas for the perfect retreat.
    Protecting and preserving the retreat is Beebe’s passion. And that means all of it, the property included. “There’s so much more than just the house,” she said.
    That has included trying to work deals with adjoining property owners who still own some of the property that was part of Jefferson’s retreat. The Poplar Forest board is hoping those neighbors, if and when they decide to sell, will consider selling to them first.
    “It’s been exciting how much of the land has come back,” Beebe said of the more than 600 acres that is now part of Poplar Forest. “Over time it’s one of the things that needs to be finished.”
    During her tenure, the exterior restoration of the house has been completed, interior restoration has begun, archaeology has been identifying important insights into Jefferson and his ideas of the perfect retreat, landscape work has begun and educational programming is underway.
    She said Jefferson’s retreat is just as important as historical sites such as Mt. Vernon and Monticello. “It’s been fun every step of the way, to be doing it, in effect, from scratch,” she said.
    And Beebe praised the board for its vision and decision to do the project with excellence and professionally, right from the start.

The new president and CEP
    Jeffrey L. Nichols, who was working as executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn. prior to coming to work at Poplar Forest, said the goal is for visitors to experience the life of Jefferson and for his life—that of curiosity and creativity—to be an inspiration for them today.
    The announcement of Nichols’ hiring as successor to Beebe was made in late June, following a nine-month national search. He has more than 15 years in museum management, most at the Mark Twain House, where he worked his way up the ranks during his tenure there. Under his leadership, the museum was named one of the 2011 Top Workplaces in the greater Hartford area.
    In announcing his appointment, the board noted the importance of Nichols’ understanding of how to successfully lead an historic property during challenging economic times. “Jeff’s approach to strategic growth and development will serve us well as Poplar Forest expands its presence on the regional, national and international stage as a historic property destination and a center for education and research on an important period in the life of Thomas Jefferson and the nation,” stated Board Chair Madeline Miller when making the announcement of his hiring.
    The challenge facing Nichols: “Which things do we do next?” he noted. “How do you make it unique, more than a historic house?”
    That includes addressing what the next five, 10 or 15 years will look like for Poplar Forest. It means helping the retreat become even more of a destination spot. That includes working in the area of public service. It means making the history of the retreat relevant to people today.
    “That’s what attracted me to this position,” Nichols said of the challenges ahead of taking Poplar Forest to the next level.
    And for Nichols there will be a learning curve.
    He has to learn about the property, he has to get to know the staff (now some 28 strong), board members and more than 125 volunteers. He has to learn this area of the country—and find a place to live. “I’m looking forward to it all,” he said.
    And he knows Beebe leaves some big shoes to fill. “(She has been) a real trailblazer,” he said. “I’m just trying to get my feet on the ground and planted.”
And what’s next for Beebe?
    Much like Jefferson, Beebe looks forward to spending more time, following her years of public service, at her own retreat, pursuing the interests she enjoys the most. That includes spending time with her family and working on her hobbies.
    And learning to paint.
    She also plans to do some consulting work.
    Beebe calls her time at Poplar Forest “an extraordinary experience” that has resulted in the preservation of a major national legacy for future generations.
    “It’s been fun every step of the way,” Beebe said of her work at Poplar Forest, “to be doing it, in effect, from scratch.”