Meet 'Twainiac' Cindy Lovell, New Director Of Mark Twain House
Pennsylvania Native Previously Ran Mark Twain Boyhood Home In Hannibal, Mo
By SUSAN DUNNE
April 10, 2013
Cindy Lovell calls herself a "Twainiac," because she's so crazy about Mark Twain. She's felt that way since she was a fourth-grader, when her teacher read the fence-whitewashing chapter of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" to the class.
"I was the oldest girl in the family. I did all the chores. I loved that he had to whitewash the fence on a Saturday and got all his friends to do it for him," she says. "I was mesmerized."
That was the beginning of a life in which Twain and teaching became Lovell's twin passions. After working for years as a university professor, she became director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home in Hannibal, Mo. Now, following in Twain's footsteps, she has left Hannibal behind and calls Hartford home, as the new executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum.
"I can't believe I am the same kid who was discovering Mark Twain in fourth grade, and now I have the keys to his house," she says. "I wake up excited every day."
She succeeds Jeff Nichols, who left last year to become president and CEO of Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's plantation retreat near Lynchburg, Va.
Lovell, a bubbly and enthusiastic 56-year-old, certainly earns her Twainiac nickname. During this interview, she began unpacking a box filled with her own collection of Twain first editions and signed volumes, and her Missouri license plate reads "TWAIN." She hopes to get a Twain-themed Connecticut plate, too, and tells a funny story about the license plate she had when living in Florida.
"I couldn't get TWAIN, but I got EQUATOR, because of his story 'Following the Equator'," she says. "Everybody driving behind me was following the EQUATOR. Only a Twainiac would get that."
However, despite her lofty position in the Twain community, and her unmistakable love for the man she prefers to call Sam Clemens, Lovell's journey through life to this plum job was not a straight one. In fact, when Lovell dropped out of high school in 11th grade, it's likely that the thought of becoming a museum director never crossed her mind.
Childhood On A Farm
The former Cindy Pletcher was raised on a farm in York County, Pa., the oldest girl in a family of three boys and three girls. She has fond memories of her childhood, which was filled with books, bluegrass music and two parents who hated television. "They were old school. It was a different time," she says. "It was a simple life, a great life."
Her favorite times were the frequent family road trips. "Anywhere that had fishing, we'd go, Canada, Florida, wherever. Whoever was awake got to drive," whether or not they had a driver's license, she says, laughing.
Back home, bluegrass was a constant. Her mother played a variety of instruments and her grandfather was a fiddler. On weekends, the house was filled with music, by her mother, grandfather and various bluegrass musicians who stopped in for a visit.
"Ralph Stanley came, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley," she says. "We'd listen to them and all fall asleep like puppy dogs in a little heap. It was true heaven."
Her father also was entrepreneurial, and encouraged all his children to find their own ways to make money. That was what prompted Lovell to drop out of school, which she still does not regret.
"I was bored. I hated it. I felt strapped down. I had better things to do," Lovell says. She loves that Twain dropped out of school, too. "He had no use for school," she says. "Huck [Finn] had no use for school, either. All my heroes were dropouts."
Lovell believes firmly that high school often holds bright kids back. "It can be boring, crushing," she says. "Schools are always giving awards for everything, but in class, they want everyone to be equal. But a lot of kids want to go at their own speed. ... Schools are set up for standardized, high-stakes testing. You can't just go off on a binge of learning, but human nature craves that."
Despite the glowing memories of her childhood, Lovell is honest about a glaring flaw in her upbringing, which Twain helped her to patch up. "In my little community, racism was alive and well. I was taught that Martin Luther King was a troublemaker," she says. "Mark Twain un-taught me that. He opened my eyes to the world. He gave me a perspective on the world and humanity that I would not have gotten unless I had traveled myself."
Back To School
Pletcher worked a merchandise table for bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, she sold stationery, she ran a pumpkin patch. She married at age 18 and raised two kids, now in their mid-30s. Her daughter is a writer and her son is an activist working to improve conditions for prison inmates.
Eventually, she and her husband moved to Edgewater, Fla., where for years they ran video stores. She worked 60 hours a week. However, something kept nagging at her. "I always wanted to be a teacher," she says.
So at age 35, she enrolled in Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., becoming the first person in her family to go to college. It took her two years and nine months to get a bachelor's in education. "I loved college. If I had known it was not like high school, I'd have skipped high school and gone straight to college," she says.
Lovell taught primary school for a while, and got a master's at Stetson. Then divorced, then moved to the University of Iowa to get her Ph.D. in education. "Sometimes, I would shoot down to Hannibal, it took two hours, to get my fix of Sam Clemens," she says.
Returning to Florida, she taught at Stetson for a while. Eventually, her other passion lured her away from Florida permanently.
"I taught a workshop in Hannibal at the Boyhood Home in 2006 ... and someone said to me 'If you lived here, you could really help us'," she says.
So she left Stetson in 2007 to move to Hannibal to volunteer at the Twain Boyhood Home and teach at Quincy University [in nearby Quincy, Ill.]. "The Twain home put me on board as a director in 2008," she says, and later named her director of the Home. Her new career path was set.
The highlight of her tenure at the Boyhood Home was a CD that told about Twain's life in spoken word and bluegrass, featuring many artists who donated their royalties to the home. Among the stars who participated were Garrison Keillor, Clint Eastwood, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley. Jimmy Buffett released it on his label, Mailboat Records. "He's a Twainiac, too," Lovell says.
After four and a half years in Hannibal, Nichols left the position in Hartford and Lovell applied for it. "It was the next logical step," she says.
Lovell's co-workers in Hannibal were dismayed that she was leaving, but she promised that Hannibal and Hartford would work together closely. "That was something that Jeff Nichols wanted," she says. "We all work for the same guy. We all have one boss, Mark Twain."
Nichols, in an interview before he left for Virginia, discussed the challenges put to him during his five-year tenure as director of Mark Twain House. Most of them involved money: balancing budget, making a profit, paying down debt.
"When I first came, I had to deal with the challenges of the aftermath of the building project, which was overbuilt and ambitious," he said, referring to the $18 million visitor center, which opened in 2003. "It got out of hand. It wasn't nefarious. Many Americans did as we did. They overbuilt because they thought the sky was the limit. But the world gets in the way."
Nichols helped decrease debt and oversaw a vast increase in the number of programs offered by the house, which helped attendance. At first, he wasn't easy about all of them. "I was nervous about the evening Ghost Tours. You're perpetuating a myth," he said. "But they were handled so well. The educational department created the tour, made it about the history of the family, about how Suzie died and Mark Twain had premonitions. We turn the lights down and let people's imaginations run a little bit wild."
Nichols said the staff — which at one point numbered 49 people, but during budget-crunching times was reduced to 17 — gets a lot out of limited resources. "This is a really scrappy group," he said. "We're living as frugally as we can in these tough times. They bring the place to life. They're mission-focused, but fun."
The biggest, and most publicly embarrassing, challenge of Nichols' tenure was the embezzlement scandal. Donna Gregor, the longtime controller of the Twain House, was dismissed in June 2010 after embezzling more than $1 million from the organization between 2002 and 2010. Gregor eventually pleaded guilty to wire fraud and filing a false tax return.
"We were up front with our supporters about it," he said. "We haven't seen a negative impact on attendance because of it."
The lesson learned? "As vigilant as you can possibly be, even vigilant in excess, it's friends who can steal from you, not strangers," he said. But he found a silver lining: "It was a bonding experience for the staff. Everyone came together," he said. "It's not a shining moment in the history of our organization, but how we all got through it turned out to be very pleasant."
Lovell, in stepping into Nicholl's role, knows that her job focus will be the same as his was: raise money, build programs, increase the endowment.
"I'm a professional beggar now. I'm OK with that. I'm not asking it for me," she says. "Twain's relevance, even in the 21st century, is unquestioned. It's my duty and personal obligation to see that his legacy remains alive and well. Even if both of his houses blew away in a storm, the legacy is still there."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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