Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith<
Culture & History chief Reid-Smith (left) chats with Rotarian Mike Herron.
April 3, 2012
"Growing up in West Virginia, all I wanted to do was get out," Randall Reid-Smith told Putynam Rotarians today. "And once I got away, all I wanted to do was get back!"
Over a decade ago, after singing opera in Europe and teaching at the University of Michigan, the Barboursville native got back to his West Virginia home. And in late 2005 he was appointed Commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture & History.
The job covers a broad range of responsibilities, and Reid-Smith has insisted on improvements and new directions despite the protests and controversies that changes often generate.
The Culture Center on the capitol campus was opened in 1976. "Gov. Moore wanted this to be the ultimate welcome center to the state of West Virginia," said Reid-Smith," the front door to the capitol complex. That was 36 yers ago.
"A year later, the Division of Culture & History became the first comprehensive agency of its kind in the country. [Gov.] Jay Rockefeller took four old departments -- archives, arts, historic preservation and the museums -- and combined them under one person.
"I inherited the state museum project. [Gov.] Joe [Manchin] said, 'Get 'er done!'
"I was an opera singer. I didn't know anything about building anything.
"But in two weeks I hired somebody that had experience.
"We came in $3.4 million under budget. What state agency does that?"
Part of the new museum is an educational component which will be finished this fall, said Reid-Smith.
To celebrate the West Virginia sesquicentennial, the commissioner wanted to start a "History Bowl."
A month before competition got underway in 2010, there were only ten teams signed up. "But in West Virginia, everybody knows everybody," said Reid-Smth. He called around, and by tournament time the number had grown to 18 teams.
Test Your Knowledge
of West Virginia History
Questions from the "History Bowl"
Later this month, sixteen finalist teams will compete for $15,000 in scholarships.
The teams are made up of eighth-graders, and a middle school basketball complained to him: "You've got to move this. It interferes with our basketball tournament."
The commissioner replied, "When is the last time you gave $15,000 to a basketball player to go to school?"
In the beginning, the hits on the division's "Quick Quizzes" averaged 300,000 per month. "Now we're up to over two million a month.
"Last year was the highest overall scores they have had for the Golden Horseshoe -- ever!"
Commissioner Reid-Smith praised the generosity of support by individuals and charities for cultural projects.
"We're giving away $30,000 worth of free music instruments." he said. "VH1 came here two and a half years ago. In two years we have 1,660 kids playing free music instruments.
"They were not going to come here: They needed a $15,000 match. In 20 minutes, the division had raised 125,000. What parent, what grandparent, does not support what their child does in the state?
"They came here; they had never done a state-wide initiative."
Reid-Smith also encourages West Virginia students to compete for a $25,000 scholarship in the national "Poetry Out Loud" competition. "Out of the six years we have been doing it," he says, "West Virginia has been in the top ten three times."
The National Symphony Orchestra also came to West Virginia through the encouragement of the Commissioner of Culture & History. "They gave 73 performances, eight of which were full concerts," he said, from Wheeling down to Princeton.
"Over $111,000 were raised, so the communities did not have to spend one penny, and 11,000 people saw what these people did."
What else does the state Division of Culture & History do? "We take care of five historic properties," said Reid-Smith, "-- Independence Hall in Wheeling (where our statehood took place), the [Grave Creek] Mound in Moundsville (which is the tallest mound of its kind in the country), in Fayette County Camp Washington Carver (the first Afro-American 4-H camp in the world), the Jenkins Plantation over at the Cabell County/Mason County line, and in Logan the 'Museum in the Park.'"
And there you have it -- archives, arts, historic preservation and the museums. "It's all about three things," he said, "time, talent and treasure."