Robert H. Smith, Remembered

By Frank Milligan

Bob Smith’s recent passing is a terrible loss for his loving family members, friends, and business associates including hundreds if not thousands of employees in dozens of educational and cultural organizations who have benefitted from his remarkable philanthropy.

Bob was a great friend of President Lincoln’s Cottage and I had the good fortune to know him for over four years and experience first-hand his philosophy of philanthropy – which was essentially to help us aim for the stars and then help us get there. But Bob always made it clear that he expected us to involve others in achieving those goals. Bob’s way was to help build the Cottage’s capacity to “friend raise” and “fund raise” thus ensuring our long-term financial health.

(left to right) F. Milligan, A. Balderson, and R. Smith in front of the Lincoln statue at the Cottage

I recall a few years ago flying back with Bob and his dear wife Clarice after visiting the recently opened Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. In flight he turned to me and asked if there was some program or initiative that we hoped some day, when funding permitted, to undertake in the soon-to-be-opened Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center at President Lincoln’s Cottage. He wanted to know what we could do that would make the visitor experience even better. He listened intently as I discussed our ideas for a truly unique computer-interactive gallery in which students and regular visitors could “become” Lincoln’s Cabinet members and discuss with their President the challenging issues that Lincoln faced while living at the Cottage. Bob asked me to send him an outline of the program –including its cost – for his consideration. The rest, as we say in our business, is history.

In 2008, President Lincoln’s Cottage was presented by the American Association of Museums its national award for technological innovation for our new computer educational gallery entitled President Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions. Since our February 2008 Grand Opening when the gallery debuted thousands of visitors have utilized this computer program to immerse themselves in Lincoln’s key military and domestic agenda cabinet debates, including emancipation.

Many times since that opening Bob was a frequent visitor to the Cottage and though he donated millions to restoration of buildings and landscapes, he took special delight in showing his guests President Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions. Typically he would say with a chuckle that he didn’t profess to understand how it all worked but he would nevertheless proclaim with great exuberance that it was just this type of innovative learning that was needed to imbue in the next generation of our nation’s leaders an understanding and appreciation of the values and principles held by our country’s great leaders – and always at the top of Bob’s list was George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

We shall miss Bob greatly but I know that he looks down now with continued satisfaction on the President Lincoln’s Cottage programs and experiences that his generosity made possible. He would not want us to miss a moment of our work in sadness; rather he would want us to look forward and work even harder to achieve our next goal.

That’s just the way he was.

Frank Milligan is the Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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