Monday, August 24, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 8-27

Notes From My Knapsack 8-27-09

Jeff Gill

Remembering Bill Laidlaw


When I wrote this column two weeks ago, it was actually four weeks
ago, and my family was getting ready to leave on vacation. I'd been
thinking about the state budget situation, the programs that I work
around in particular, that serve the most vulnerable in society, and
how to balance those needs in a time of crisis against the needs of
historic preservation & interpretation.

My thought was to ask you all to think out loud with me on what has
to be done, what we can do, and how it will get done. Then we got
back from vacation to learn that the executive director of the Ohio
Historical Society, Bill Laidlaw (a man I'd come both to respect, and
to enjoy speaking with, in person and by e-mail), and who was
scheduled to retire at the end of this year, had died while on
vacation himself, with his family during that very same week.

So my topic has to change a bit, because even though losing hours or
access to a historical site or library is a dilemma, as the old
saying goes, every time a person dies, it's like a library burning down.

And some libraries are larger than others.

So I wrote the following immediately after hearing about Bill's death:

There's one approach to history that focuses on "great men," and a
contrasting understanding that says "trends and movements" are the
real hinge of historical developments.

When people look back in years to come on this era for the Ohio
Historical Society, they will surely see the broader influences of
significant economic shifts in the state, with budget cuts defining
much of the story, but they will unavoidably notice a particular
person who stands at the heart of the turmoil and trials of this time
– William Laidlaw.

Bill may not have liked the label "great man," but his influence has
been great, even if in humble and unassuming ways. Bill's greatness
has been in good humor, by bringing a cheerful spirit and
constructive attitude into tense meetings and challenging situations,
with a smile and a raised eyebrow where others might raise voices and
offer a scowl. That was not a look you saw often, if ever, from Bill

With a background in management and academia, he chose to take on a
radically new challenge at a point in his life and career when many
men simply look for a capstone achievement, one ideally well within
their comfort zone. Instead, Bill took on the task of helping
reformulate a not-quite-state-agency that was already known to be in
not-quite-good if not outright difficult financial straits. Not long
after he got his pencils sharpened on his desk blotter, the state
budget forecasts turned dark and got progressively stormier than
anyone could have forecast -- but Bill stayed the happy warrior and
gracious civic servant right through his latest rounds of statehouse
lobbying and public advocacy, last May and June.

And as he worked with his staff to shape the statewide picture as
much as circumstances allowed, he continued to communicate with
individuals and families about the joys of history and the excitement
of sharing knowledge. Here in Licking County, a mom down the street
came by this afternoon to ask if it was true what she heard "about
that smiling nice man with the white hair," who had e-mailed her back
after a chance encounter about places she and her four children would
find interesting and accessible. She couldn't quite recall his name,
but she knew that "the boss" of the state historical society had
taken the time to do personally what so many in his position would
have quietly handed off to a junior staffer. Plus, she remembered
the smile, and the interest in her kids.

In the next few months and years, historic sites and cultural
landmarks in Ohio will be getting formal recognition from the United
Nations of their unique significance, their greatness in a global
context. Bill Laidlaw would be quick to point out that the major
work, the detail work, the groundwork was all done by others. But
for those of us who will be honored to see that day come when Ohio
has sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, we will all know when
that day comes that it was the cheerfully persistent leadership that
Bill brought to OHS that was crucial to making it happen.

Was Bill Laidlaw a great man, or the right man at a time when
greatness was called for? The right answer, many of us suspect, is

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around
central Ohio; you're invited to add your stories of Bill to http://

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