State Librarian Michael York Remembers Van McLeod

Jul 19, 2016

Van McLeod, Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources, died Monday morning.

He was commissioner for 24 years. McLeod oversaw the Council of the Arts, the Television and Film Office, the State Library, and the Division of Historical Resources. He was instrumental in developing New Hampshire’s cultural community.

He spoke with NHPR’s Laura Knoy a few years ago about his devotion to keeping the arts alive in New Hampshire. He said, “If you work on it for kids, if you work on it for your community, if you work on it for the betterment of society: that keeps you going.”

Van McLeod’s colleague Michael York spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about McLeod.

How will you remember Van McLeod?

I will remember him as a person with a real vision about what culture is in New Hampshire, and how we need to promote that for the citizens of the state. He had wonderful ideas, which he shared with lots of people, and I think he put his imprimatur on this office of Commissioner of Cultural Resources. His legacy is going to be very long lived, in my opinion.

What would you say is one of his greatest achievements?

He had many. He was always working on something, because there are four sections within the Department of Cultural Resources: Libraries, Historical Resources, the Art Council, and the Film, Television, and Digital Office. And that meant there were always things going on that needed his attention.

He always had a very upbeat, positive attitude—even when things looked grim. Even when there was a lack of funding for things, he seemed to always find a way to get things done.

He worked on a number of very important projects in New Hampshire. About 20 years ago, New Hampshire was featured as the state on the mall in Washington D.C. for the American Folk Life Festival. He developed that program, taking two years to provide a program that people from New Hampshire could be proud of.

He was also anxious to talk to anyone about these things. A few years ago, he brought in a number of authors to talk about the creative economy. He thought it was important for New Hampshire to understand what the creative economy was, why it was important, and how New Hampshire could take advantage of that. He pointed out that artists are not just people who throw pots or carve wood, but are also entrepreneurs and small-business people, and we need to be concerned about their survival and their thriving in New Hampshire.

Could you tell us a little bit about his personality, and what he was like to work with?

The most important thing to me about Commissioner McLeod is that he had he had a very good sense of humor. He was always upbeat when he came into the office. He would joke with everybody. Everybody felt that he was a very nice man. He was a positive person, and I think that will probably be his real legacy. People not only liked him, but they respected him as well, and he should be remembered for that. That’s certainly one of the ways I will remember him.

Are there any stories you can remember that illustrate the points you just made?

Like all people, he had his pet sayings. He used to point his finger at people and say, “My second grade teacher used to say, ‘Remember when you point your finger at somebody else, there are three fingers pointing back at you. Be careful of what you say.’” Those kinds of aphorisms were part of his lexicon. He communicated with people with good stories.

He had a background in theater production, which seems like an unusual background to have as a commissioner.

He did have a background in theater. He trained at the collegiate level, and in addition he ran the Lincoln Theater in Lincoln, New Hampshire. As it turns out, I think it was good training for the Commissioner of Cultural Resources, because he was a producer. And he could look at situations and decide how things should be presented. Quite frankly, he would take charge. When it came to that, he was a no-nonsense guy. He would listen to people, but he knew what needed to be done and he would affect that.

How would you describe his lasting impression on the state, professionally or personally?

His mark on the state will be that he served for a very long time. He was, up until today, the longest-serving commissioner of any in the state, and I used to joke when I introduced him that he was the “longest-serving commissioner in captivity.” He seemed to appreciate that.

The department has been attacked over the years, and he has been instrumental in defending the department very well so that it was not eliminated. You can imagine in that 20 year period, starting in 1992, there were a lot of difficult times financially, which means all departments and divisions were under scrutiny.

We came through those, and to a large extent it’s because of his leadership and his ability to communicate the story adequately and articulately to the people who mattered.