On April 10, 2014, LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove stood beside civil rights champion and Congressman John Lewis. Together, they had just welcomed now-former president Barack Obama to the stage at the Civil Rights Summit, the first event of its kind that celebrated the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act.
As Obama took the mic and said he would not be there if not for the laws signed by President Johnson, Updegrove peered down into the audience to see presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, first ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, his wife, his children, and dearest friends. What Obama said was true: If not for LBJ, none of them could be there together for this unforgettable event. “It was a very stirring moment for me,” Updegrove says.
Updegrove’s tenure as director of the LBJ Library has been full of moments like these. He’s led an $11 million redesign of the museum’s core exhibits, spoken with the likes of John Glenn, Bob Schieffer, and Cokie Roberts, and hosted events like last year’s Vietnam War Summit featuring John Kerry and Henry Kissinger. But now, eight years after he first arrived at LBJ’s museum, Updegrove has announced that the time has come for him to move on. Though his replacement is not yet known, Updegrove will become the CEO of the new National Medal of Honor Museum in South Carolina after his role at the LBJ Library ends on March 1. The Alcalde spoke with him about his last few days on campus and what the future holds in store.
How are you feeling?
It’s bittersweet to say the least. These last eight years have been by far the most rewarding period of my career. I’m proud of what we accomplished. I’m also excited about new challenges, but a little wistful in my last several days.
What about the LBJ Presidential Library will you miss most?
The people, without question. They are really the best at what they do. The LBJ Library has always enjoyed an excellent reputation as the best of the presidential libraries but the one constant has been the excellence of its people. I will miss them most of all.
How did you first become the library’s director?
Years ago, I was asked by the director of presidential libraries at the National Archives and Records Administration if I’d be interested in being director of a presidential library. I said, “yes, but the only presidential library I’d like to be director of is the LBJ Presidential Library. When there’s a vacancy there, give me a call.” A couple of years later there was an opening. I got the call, and seized the opportunity.
Has your perspective of LBJ changed over the last eight years?
I think I got an even greater appreciation for LBJ. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to tell this story. One of the reasons I wanted the role was because of what I did know about LBJ. He is one of the most, if not the most, consequential presidents of my lifetime. But I didn’t feel that most people recognized the importance of LBJ in our history. Principally he was known for Vietnam which is an important part of his legacy, but not the only part. I wanted to highlight the accomplishments of the Great Society. The laws LBJ put on the books I think create modern America. His prodigious legislative agenda simply changed the way we live and who we are as Americans.
What has been your proudest accomplishment here?
I had two goals when I started. One was to elevate the legacy of LBJ and show its relevance in 21st century America. The other was to make the LBJ Library a preeminent forum for thought leadership. I think we’ve done both. There’s a far greater appreciation for LBJ now than there was years ago and the LBJ Library is now a place people want to come to. From Mikhail Gorbachev to Sandra Day O’Connor to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it’s just phenomenal the people who have come to our doors. They have seeded the notion that this is the place where people come to share ideas—not to just look back at LBJ’s administration, but also to look forward.
Tell us a bit about your new job.
I will be the inaugural CEO of the soon-to-be-built National Medal of Honor Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. The Medal of Honor is our nation’s highest award to those who have demonstrated bravery and valor on the battlefield, yet there is no museum enshrining their stories. But it’s not just telling those stories, it’s about the larger message of the importance of service over self.
What would you tell your successor?
I would say you’ve inherited a phenomenal institution and I hope you have your own vision. Don’t get caught up in the legacy of those who’ve come before you. Forge your own path and have your own view of what it should be in the future.
Any parting words?
My parting words are thank you. Thank you to those here at the LBJ Library, the LBJ Foundation, the campus at UT, and all the others who have given me such support in the run that I’ve had here. I am truly grateful to those who had a hand in my success.
Photos courtesy of Anne Wheeler/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.
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