Thursday, August 13, 2009

Remembering Bill Laidlaw

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 Laidlaw.

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 “both.”

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