Mark Updegrove, only the fourth director of the LBJ Presidential Library, announced Thursday that he will step down March 1.
An author and former media executive, Updegrove will become the CEO of the newly minted National Medal of Honor Museum planned for Charleston Harbor in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
He leaves after eight years filled with incident.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” said Updegrove, who will maintain a presence in Austin, where he lives with his wife, Amy Updegrove, former publisher of Texas Monthly, and their four children. “I’ve largely achieved what I wanted to achieve here.”
As the leader of a glamorous part of the National Archives system, Updegrove hosted political and legal celebrities, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as popular stars, from Bryan Cranston to Sissy Spacek — along with four presidents and three first ladies.
“More importantly, we’ve seen an elevation in the legacy of LBJ,” he said. “There’s a greater appreciation for the 36th president. And that was my primary goal.”
Since he arrived in 2009, Updegrove modernized the library’s speaking programs and oversaw the $11 million redesign of its core exhibits. Both campaigns have increased the visibility of the library and the number of visits to the megalithic building that opened in 1971.
The former event, tied to the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President Lyndon Baines Johnson championed and signed into law, attracted Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as first ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush.
A consummate diplomat and spokesman — who understood the Johnson family’s unbreakable link to Central Texas history and culture — Updegrove plans to return to the library to moderate events.
Although an admission price was introduced during his tenure, Updegrove made the library as accessible as possible to the public. Playwright Robert Schenkkan and actor Cranston, for instance, did research there in preparation for the matched LBJ plays “All the Way” and “The Great Society.” The latter is now onstage at Zach Theatre.
“Mark has been such a tremendous ambassador for the LBJ Library and great holder of the flame of President Johnson’s legacy and meaning for us in these times,” said Zach Theatre director Dave Steakley. “His abilities as a speaker and moderator will be deeply missed in the dialogue he created locally on national issues.”
“You have done a tremendous job,” Cranston, who played LBJ on Broadway and in an HBO adaptation, wrote Updegrove in an email on hearing about his departure. “And an accomplished man such as you are needs to be looking forward.”
During his time in Austin, Updegrove penned “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.” He is working on his fifth book, “The Last Republicans: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — a Father, a Son, and the End of an Era,” due out in 2017.
Just days ago, Harry Middleton, the man who did the most to mold the LBJ Library — as its founder and longtime director — was honored during a memorial service at the site. He died Jan. 20 at age 95.
Plaudits poured in after Updegrove’s announcement Thursday.
“Mark has been an extraordinary leader for the LBJ Presidential Library, guiding us through some of the most exciting milestones of the institution’s history,” said Elizabeth Christian, president of the LBJ Foundation. “The foundation is grateful beyond words for his tenure, and I’m personally thankful for his friendship and ongoing commitment to our important work.”
“Mark Updegrove is a rare leader possessed with vision, creativity and organizational skills,” said Larry Temple, chairman of the LBJ Foundation. “He is an entrepreneurial guy both with great ideas and the skills to implement them.”
Temple said the programming at the LBJ Library over the past eight years has brought international acclaim to the library and to the University of Texas.
“Credit that to Mark Updegrove,” he said. “I won’t try to put a happy face on our disappointment on his leaving. While we will always be indebted to him for the rich legacy of accomplishment that he leaves at the library, I just say: Darn it. We hate to see him go and we will miss him.”
Updegrove will not be completely absent from the Austin scene.
“This is farewell, not goodbye,” he said. “We are going to be living here for at least the next year and a half. We are working on a capital campaign for the Charleston museum, and we haven’t broken ground yet. This is a brand new challenge: the opportunity to build something from the ground up.”
His place in LBJ history fairly secure, Updegrove anticipates the tenure of the next director.
“I hope it means new leadership and a new vision for what this institution can be as we move forward,” he said. “I’d like to believe that, with the help of my staff and the foundation, we’ve revitalized the library, but we haven’t achieved an end point. This is an evolving institution.”