A remarkable leader of local historical society

A remarkable leader of local historical society

William C. Kashatus
Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, August 10, 2015

When Rob Lukens became president of the Chester County Historical Society in 2011, he thanked me for setting an “inspirational example of leadership” in establishing public programs and initiating a well-received Underground Railroad exhibit 10 years earlier.

Although I’d like to believe that I knew something about leadership, Rob, who died of cancer earlier this month at the age of 42, taught me that the most effective leaders are those who serve others.

Chester County Historical Society (CCHS), in West Chester, is not only a repository for primary source documents, books, historical photographs, and artifacts, but it is also a museum with rotating exhibits, a permanent “History Lab” gallery for children, and an impressive docket of school and public programs.

While the focus is Chester County, many of the collections have national import because of the prominent role the region played in the American Revolution, abolitionism, and agricultural development.

I worked at CCHS as director of educational and public programs from 1998 to 2004, and fell in love with local history and with my colleagues. Never before or since have I worked with a more knowledgeable and dedicated staff.

Since there were less than a dozen of us, we all had to curate exhibits, write grants, present public programs, and even rearrange chairs in the auditorium. The staff also cared about each other, reveling in someone’s achievement, and commiserating when something didn’t work out as planned.

Rob, who began his career at CCHS as collections manager, would often ask me about my graduate school experience and the process of writing a dissertation. I could tell that he had the intellectual curiosity to enroll in a doctoral program and the passion and work ethic to complete a degree, so I encouraged him to pursue it.

Rob was careful in planning his career, and earning the doctorate in history was an important step in that process. He left CCHS in 2003 to broaden his experience in the museum field, first as chief curator and head of collections at Chemical Heritage Foundation, then as executive director at Historic Yellow Springs, and finally as exhibits and education director at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center.

In the process, Rob learned a lot about directing a historical society, specifically how to work with boards, raise money, and, most importantly, to lead.

Effective leaders are not only committed to the mission of their institution, but they have a vision for the future, the ability to communicate that vision, and the persuasiveness to convince others to buy into it. Rob had all that and more.

What made him a truly exceptional leader was his ability to listen patiently to trustees, co-workers, and volunteers, understand how their concerns related to CCHS’s mission and adapt their initiatives to a shared vision. For the president of a historical society, that entails promoting public awareness and raising the money to allow the staff to pursue those efforts.

Rob promoted CCHS in many innovative ways. He initiated a regular column in the Daily Local News, a weekly local radio program, and the popular “History on Tap” series that brought historical presentations to restaurants throughout the county.

More challenging is raising the money to fund exhibits, maintain the physical plant, and create public programs at a time when cultural institutions are a distant third in donations to medical research and education. Historical societies, in particular, must compete with larger cultural institutions for the same federal, state, and local funding.

But Rob managed to find donors. He raised significant funding for needed upgrades to facilities, continuing plans for their improvement and for a new permanent exhibition on Chester County’s past, which will open in 2017.

Rob did it all while he and his wife, Becky, raised their two children and, over the last two years, fought stomach cancer.

By all accounts, Rob never complained about his illness, nor did he feel sorry for himself. Instead, he fulfilled his responsibilities at work and spent as much time as possible with his family.

Rob Lukens was a rare servant leader, the kind cultural institutions need if they are to fulfill their mission. That he accomplished so much in his brief time on Earth is a remarkable testament to his passion for history, exceptional wisdom, and unwavering commitment to CCHS.