The pandemic has presented challenges to everyone, and museums and other public educational institutions have been no exception. “Every one of our sources of income disappeared, virtually overnight,” says Jim Byron 2015, the new president and CEO of the Nixon Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. “We couldn’t do events. We couldn’t accommodate museum visitors,” he says.
But what they could do was shift gears. In the 14 months that the Nixon Library has remained closed to visitors, the foundation has refocused its efforts to support the local community’s response to the pandemic. They opened the beautiful replica of the White House East Room for blood drives and food drives. They acquired one million disposable masks and donated most of them to local schools, businesses and places of worship to allow people to gather safely.
“We’ve really embraced our role as a partner for so many people in the community in a different way,” says Byron. “We still do regular blood drives and they are always full… if we can provide those opportunities, if we can be that center where people come to help each other, I think that fits very well with the mission of the Foundation Nixon.
A unique opportunity
Byron, who graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in history, knows the foundation’s mission intimately. He started working there over 15 years ago, when he was just a history-loving teenager looking for something to do in the summer.
“I wrote a ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letter to the Nixon Library, and to my surprise, I got a response,” says Byron, who was offered an internship for a few hours a week in the marketing. department. “It was an invaluable experience because I was learning the ins and outs of marketing and management and how to work with people at a very young age, opportunities few high school kids have.”
Byron continued to work part-time for the foundation throughout high school and college, with increasing areas of responsibility, eventually leading to a full-time position. In 2016, he led the reopening of the library after its $15 million renovation, and from 2014 to 2017 he worked as coordinator of the foundation’s $25 million fundraising campaign. Most recently, he served as executive vice president, under former Nixon Foundation president and Chapman law professor Hugh Hewitt.
Become a Center for Presidential Studies
While President Nixon’s political legacy is complicated, Byron is eager to deepen his understanding of the former president’s administration. “There are 46 million pages of material from President Nixon’s life here at the Nixon Library,” he says. “There are two million feet of film. There are 300,000 photographs. There are 3,600 hours of White House recordings. Only a fraction of this material has been fully gleaned by historians, scholars and students.
This is where Byron hopes the foundation’s close ties to Chapman will come into play. The two institutions have previously worked together to create opportunities for students to come and do practical research in the library. The new Presidential Studies program at Wilkinson College of Art, Humanities, and Social Social Sciences, which was launched last year with two fully endowed chairs, is another important step in the growing and mutually beneficial partnership between the university and the library. One of the chairs was funded by James Cavanaugh, the current Chairman of the Board of the Nixon Foundation.
“Not every undergraduate has the ability to go to a presidential library near their campus and rummage through papers,” says Byron. “It’s a really unique opportunity and I think it will help put Chapman on the map as a center of study for the presidency.”
Now that the library is once again open to visitors, Byron hopes to increase attendance over the next few years through a series of inventive special exhibits, including a just-announced interactive exhibit on Cold War espionage. . And of course, the library will continue to educate the public about accomplishments of the Nixon presidency that still impact our lives today, such as the National Cancer Act, the Clean Air Act, and endangered species law.
“I recently learned that as a young congressman in the late 1940s, Nixon was pressuring the Truman administration to put in place a national health care plan,” Byron says. “It was really surprising to me.”