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Gette set to take on Texas
VMNH director leaving for home state
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VMNH Executive Director Tim Gette stands on a walkway overlooking the museum’s Great Hall. The museum building on Starling Avenue was built under his watch. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

There are stories that Tim Gette wants to share about his home state of Texas.

That is why he is moving back there after nearly five years as executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) in Martinsville.

His last day will be Wednesday.

Gette has been named executive director of the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The museum promotes the culture of Texas and strives to help visitors understand how that culture has affected the state's residents, according to its Web site.

Texas is a big state, one that "was its own republic" many years ago, Gette said, so it has "a lot of history." It also has a lot of wealth.

"We have so many ... stories we can tell," he said, ranging from the tales of folk heroes and life stories of presidents who came from Texas to describing how abundant resources such as oil and natural gas are produced.

The Institute of Texan Cultures opened in 1968. Gette, 62, said he will take over its leadership at a time when the university's new president has set a goal for the institute to evolve into a world-class museum.

VMNH has grown tremendously under Gette's leadership. In 2007, it moved from a former elementary school on Douglas Avenue into a new facility on Starling Avenue five times as large as the school building. The new museum has high-tech exhibits that are more modern than ones they replaced.

"That was a monumental project," said VMNH Board of Trustees member George Lyle. He praised Gette for being able to oversee construction and moving collections all the while he managed day-to-day operations.

The number of visitors at VMNH has grown from about 21,000 to about 53,000 people per year since the new building opened. Visitors at the new facility have come from across the nation and throughout the world.

Gette said the Texas museum gets about 200,000 visitors annually.

Lyle said Gette has boosted VMNH's membership and fund-raising abilities, as well as "built a strong relationship with Richmond and cemented that relationship" with state officials and other state agencies.

It puts the museum in a much better position for the future, Lyle indicated.

"So much of what I've done here (to help VMNH grow and develop) is what I'll be expected to do" in Texas, Gette said.

One of his duties will be figuring out how the institute can use the vast amount of vacant land surrounding it, he said.

Overseeing the Texas museum "will take all of my experience here and build upon it," he said. "It will be a great challenge."�

It was an opportunity that he could not turn down. He said he understands he was chosen from about 60 applicants.

Gette sought the institute job upon hearing of the opening. As a Texan, he is highly interested in the culture that the museum promotes.

He also wants to return to Texas to be closer to his wife, Kristi, who is math curriculum coordinator for the Arlington (Texas) School District. She chose to remain in Texas because her job benefits would not transfer to Virginia, he said.

The couple has commuted a lot during the past five years. Either Gette flew to Texas, or his wife would take a plane trip to Martinsville, once a month.

Gette joked that he has gotten to know the American Airlines employees at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., so well that they no longer charge him a check-in fee for his luggage.

A Texan in Virginia

Gette was in the Air Force and worked in aviation and as a journalist before starting his museum career. He worked for museums in Texas before coming to Martinsville.

He said that throughout his life, he has enjoyed learning about history and visiting museums around the world.

Even when he went to a museum he had previously visited, "I would always find something new and exciting" to remember, he said.

Gette was searching for a job as executive director of a museum when the VMNH post became vacant in 2004. He said he has enjoyed working there.

But he mentioned one disappointment.

"We haven't gotten the corporate (funding) opportunities that I would like to have had," Gette said, indicating that may be due to industry leaving the area in recent years.

Many companies prefer to donate money to institutions their employees - and their employees' families - can easily use, he said. That is one reason why it is important for VMNH to increase the number of outreach programs offered elsewhere in Virginia, he emphasized.

VMNH is "a fun museum" to work at and visit, Gette said, noting that it is "the only museum in Virginia to cover all of the various elements of natural history."�

The museum's focus, he added, is "to tell the story of Virginia's natural history in context with the rest of the world."�

Two elements of nature - trees and squirrels - are what Gette will miss most about the state.

When someone from another part of the nation drives around Virginia, the person has "to be in wonder at the number and size of trees here," he said.

Trees in Texas are not as tall as those in Virginia, which are "as high as you can see," said Gette. In fact, some of the trees in the Lone Star State seem like shrubbery compared to those in Virginia, he mused.

The squirrels in Southside are bigger and fatter than those in Texas. That is because acorns and vegetation that squirrels eat are more plentiful here because there is more rainfall in Virginia than in Texas, Gette said.

Gette aims to visit VMNH in the future. He has a sister in Woodbridge, so it is likely he will stop by on trips to see her, he said.


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