I had the great honor yesterday to deliver some brief remarks at my mother’s retirement from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. As a curator of post-Apollo human spaceflight, Mom has had one of the coolest jobs in the world and I am incredibly proud of her.
The party was a lot of fun and gave me a chance to mingle with her colleagues, both those I have known most of my life and newer hires whom I was meeting for the first time. The room was packed to overflowing and many people – including current and former directors of the museum – took the mic to praise Mom for her career.
Some themes that emerged were how much she loved her work, how much she focused on people and relationships rather than just artifacts, and how she knew when to play up her Southern friendliness and when to be tough. I was pleased that most of the remarks – and private conversations I had with her colleagues – were about her character rather than about her specific accomplishments. It is clear that she has left her mark on the institution she has served so dutifully and that she will be missed.
Following are the remarks that I made when it was my turn at the mic:
Dr. Valerie Neal. Curator. Historian. Author. Editor. Department Chair. You may call her that but, before she was any of those things, she was what I still call her today: Mom. So I’d like to share a few thoughts on her career from a slightly different perspective.
When I first set foot in the National Air and Space Museum, I was 10 years old. It was the summer of 1989 and we had just moved here from Huntsville, Alabama. We were living out of suitcases because we didn’t have a house yet and we certainly didn’t have childcare yet! So, until the school year began, Mom brought me in to work with her every day.
When I was that age, I had some friends who would complain about having to go into work with their parents – but I could not relate – I thought my mom had the coolest job in the world! That summer the Museum was my babysitter, my teacher, and my playground. I would spend all day every day working through the galleries, attending the shows, and browsing the shops. Can you imagine a more magical place to spend an unstructured summer during your formative years? It was like my own, private, self-directed Space Camp!
And it didn’t end there; I practically grew up in the Museum. I wore my first tux at Mom’s first exhibit opening. As I was getting into computers, the Museum’s head of IT kept me supplied with adequate computing power. When I became interested in science, I used a school career day to shadow members of the Museum’s Lab for AstroPHysics (“LAPH”). The Museum was the first place I found where a kid who was interested in science and technology could be nurtured rather than LAPH’ed at.
30 years later, as I have strived to leave my own mark on the world through a career in energy technology innovation, many people have pointed to my childhood immersed in Space as a source of inspiration for taking big shots at transforming the way we power society. While that’s true, I think it’s a little simplistic. If you dig a little deeper, I was – and continue to be – more fundamentally inspired by a young, single mother from a small town in rural America leaving everything behind – her friends, her support networks, her comfort zone – to make a greater impact on a bigger stage, in the nation’s capitol at the most popular museum in the world.
So, Mom, I congratulate you on a career of inspiration.
A career of inspiration doesn’t just happen, though. Mom is one of the hardest workers I have ever known. Growing up, many of my memories of us at home feature Mom at her desk – late at night, over the weekend – working away on an exhibit, talk, or manuscript. Once when I was young we were camping and she was telling me a ghost story as I fell asleep. Well, clearly she was getting sleepy because she started getting her facts mixed up. I will never forget how the protagonist of her story turned the corner in the haunted house and encountered . . . the Space Shuttle!
Indeed, Mom’s work at the Museum was never far from her mind, but she always made the time and space for me. She came to every one of my football games. She copy edited every paper I asked her to. Despite her tremendous workload, she was always there as a strong, supportive, loving mother – and, for that, I am eternally grateful.
I have never been Mom’s colleague so I don’t know what it is like to work with her. Her younger sisters – my aunts – have been known to call her bossy. A younger version of myself might have even accused her of micromanaging as she stayed on me about my homework and chores! Your mileage at the Musuem may have varied. I’m also not a scholar in her field so I can’t gauge the quality of her work product.
But I can state categorically that you will never find someone more committed or dedicated to her craft, to the point that, in our household, we use the expression “good enough for government work” ironically because the hardest working perfectionist we know happens to be a federal employee! She is the consummate public servant which, as a tax payer, I find gratifying!
So, Mom, I congratulate you on a career of dedication.
Hard work only gets you so far, though; at the end of the day, results are what really matter. As such, every exhibit opened, every artifact collected, every book published, every article written, every interview given – every opportunity to see my mom as an intelligent, confident, articulate, passionate leader in her field – has been a source of enormous pride for me.
The moments that make me especially proud are the times when my own friends and colleagues contact me to tell me how much they enjoy something she worked on – usually after a museum visit or having seen her on some program. During the 2012 media blitz surrounding Discovery’s arrival at the Udvar-Hazy Center, my wife’s boss said she had been really impressed by Mom’s interview on a major talkshow. At first I was proud but then . . . I was perplexed. My wife asked her boss how she knew it was my mom; they had never met and Mom and I don’t share the same last name. Her boss responded, “Well, I was watching TV and, all of a sudden, there was Bryan . . . in a blonde wig . . . with lipstick . . . dropping all kinds of really interesting knowledge about the Space Shuttle!” I will take a comparison like that as a compliment any day!
In this Internet-enabled age, it isn’t uncommon for someone I don’t even know to tell me how much they enjoy Mom’s work. A woman reached out to me on twitter a year or two ago to let me know that she had been moved to tears by seeing Discovery at the Udvar-Hazy Center for the first time – not just due to the sentimental value the artifact had for her and her family but especially because of the way it was presented. She likened it to the profound, nearly spiritual experience of turning the corner of the Accademia in Florence and seeing Michelangelo’s David for the first time. That conversation was a poignant reminder that the work Mom does – that you all do – at the Smithsonian touches people’s lives in significant and meaningful ways.
So, Mom, I congratulate you on a career of impact.
As you have written the book of your life, you have steered your career toward these three themes: inspiration, dedication, and impact. For that I congratulate you three times over. And now your grandchild, your daughter-in-law, and your son are looking forward to joining you in asking, “Where next?” as we explore your next chapter together.
2 thoughts on “Congratulations On Retirement, Mom!”
Bryan, thank you so very much for sharing this beautifully written tribute to your mother. You totally captured Valerie’s essence with your comments. Those of us who have been privileged to work with her and are counted as friends are truly blessed to know her. Hugs to you, Katie and Obi. Becky
Oh, Bryan! You have captured the essence of Valerie beautifully. She certainly has left some big shoes to fill. I am so excited for her retirement and move. And I will see you guys SOON‼️