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Library sparks debate
Hiring, naming of room cause disagreements

Like many people in Springfield, Cullom Davis is rooting for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Davis, perhaps more than most, is personally invested in the complex's success. As a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, former director of the Lincoln Legal Papers Project and one-time president of the Abraham Lincoln Association, he has spent much of his life looking after the 16th president.

But, since Richard Norton Smith came to town last year to direct the library and museum, much has happened that Davis does not like. An early supporter of Smith, Davis is concerned that Smith's leadership style and "lofty" persona have had a debilitating effect on the library staff.

Davis also has misgivings about hiring practices there and the naming of the library's first-floor reference room after the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal.

Davis kept quiet, until recently, when he felt compelled to share his complaints with The New York Times, which interviewed him for an article about the library and museum that appeared in the paper's Nov. 15 edition.

The article balanced the high expectations many have for the scheduled April 19 opening of the Lincoln Presidential Museum with sharp criticism by two prominent Illinois scholars: Davis and Southern Illinois University's John Y. Simon.

Davis's quoted comments were directed toward Smith. Simon charged that plans for the museum are more inspired by "Disney" than a reverence for history, an opinion he has voiced previously.

"I don't want to be associated with the negative comments about Richard Norton Smith," Simon told The State Journal-Register. "But the museum is an updated version of a wax museum - Six Flags over Lincoln. You can tell those people in Springfield, I don't like that Lincoln museum."

Davis also elaborated on his concerns.

He claims Illinois Historic Preservation Agency chairwoman Julie Cellini has hired friends, namely Susan Mogerman and Estie Karpman, to run the library and museum's foundation. Mogerman is the foundation's executive director. Karpman is its chief fund-raiser. Cellini, who has worked with both women in the past, sits on the foundation board.

Mogerman and Karpman are longtime Springfield residents. Mogerman, a previous Illinois Historic Preservation Agency director and former head of Downtown Springfield Inc., has been involved with library and museum planning from nearly the beginning. Karpman, most recently the Illinois State Museum's fund-raiser who led a class on the subject at UIS for years, was one of the first people the Lincoln foundation called about how to set up a money-raising program.

Mogerman and Cellini said experts at a top-rated fund-raising program at Indiana University recommended scouting for local talent before taking on a costly and time-consuming national search. The foundation already had been dormant for about a year, Mogerman said, and there was pressure to make up for lost time.

"(Estie and I) are two unique people with unique sets of experiences," Mogerman said. "We were also at the right time at the right place."

Cellini staunchly defends hiring the women.

"National searches are fine, but often in your region there are excellent people," she said. "This team hasn't been together that long, and they are already successful."

Both Smith and Cellini refer to Davis as part of an "old guard" and say his concerns may even be personal.

Even Davis tempers his concerns. He said he admires Mogerman and Karpman, although he continues to question whether anyone from Springfield has the experience to run a "world-class" institution.

Davis also said he raises his concerns reluctantly. He admires Smith greatly, he said.

"I was among the early champions of Richard Smith's appointment," Davis said. "I remember calling him before the news really broke, offering him my congratulations. I'm not out gunning for Richard. He's a gifted guy."

Recently, though, a few things began to eat at him, including the naming of the presidential library's reading room after the late Sun-Times columnist Neal, a close friend of Smith's.

When Davis learned of the honor, he was offended. Neal's columns accused former Gov. George Ryan of planning to use the library and museum as a patronage dump and creating a Lincoln presidential center at UIS for the same purpose.

When fund-raising confusion arose as UIS's Lincoln center competed for dollars with the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum's foundation, Neal wrote about it. Among other things, Neal accused UIS of "cashing in on Lincoln's legacy" by "hijacking" the presidential library. Gov. Rod Blagojevich ultimately yanked the center and its funding from UIS.

Davis was one of those helping UIS with fund raising for its new center.

The whole affair was an "incredible embarrassment to the university," Davis said, adding that UIS officials never had selfish motives and didn't deserve Neal's public smearing.

Asked if he took personally the naming of the library room after Neal, Davis responded, "You're darn right."

Smith said he merely recommended naming the reference room after Neal, who is credited by admirers for restoring integrity to the library and museum. Neal also was a major force behind Smith's appointment, which has been heralded as a turning point for the facility's once politically soiled reputation.

As for Smith's short tenure, it has not been smooth.

Davis said he knows many library employees and soon began hearing about "absolute turmoil" among Smith's staff, some of whom started fearing for their jobs and of Smith's alleged temper.

Such allegations are not new.

"Richard is a visionary who often goes from A to Z without saying the rest of the alphabet," said Linda Kay Pritchard, assistant to the director of the Dole Institute in Kansas.

Pritchard worked for Smith when he directed the institute right before arriving in Springfield and considers him a close friend - "the greatest person in the world," she said.

Pritchard also said there were people whom Smith frustrated in Kansas, generally as a result of personality clashes and battles over long-term plans. She once met someone at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, which Smith also directed. The person told her Smith "irritated people," but added that "his ideas were huge."

Smith denies having a temper but confesses he underestimated how much stress the job, public scrutiny, belt-tightening budget cuts and a turgid state bureaucracy would create.

Davis and library staff are particularly upset with how Smith often has criticized the old Illinois State Historical Library, whose material became the bulk of the Lincoln Presidential Library this year. He has singled it out as an "entrenched culture" that refuses change and lowers expectations. Smith has made many changes, including extending library hours and tightening security.

"There is no doubt I've been an agent of change, and there is an unavoidable consequence of one culture being transformed by another," Smith said.

"I'm sure I've made mistakes. I will make mistakes. The fact is, an awful lot is being asked of these people, and by and large they have every right to ask why so much change is being forced upon them. Most of them have more than risen to the challenge. The bottom line: They are better than the system in which they are mired."

Davis concedes that, even among members of the "old guard," change is necessary.

"Some could use some shaking up," he said. "(Smith) is certainly correct - this is a new location. It needs new energy, new ideas. I certainly agree with that, period."

All parties also agree that much is at stake. Getting the library and museum running has been rough on nearly everyone involved. There have been obstacles, some political and some the inevitable mishaps associated with large construction projects.

And conflicting leadership styles and personalities are nothing new in the often-contentious world of Lincoln scholarship. Legendary rivalries, large egos and heated debates are well documented.

Cellini summed up what's often forgotten when so many high-profile people come together for a common cause.

"This isn't about who's doing the fund raising," she said. "This is a wonderful, quality project. The superstar is what you're raising money for."

Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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