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Discovery Place leader stepping down

John Mackay, who walked into a forerunner of Discovery Place toting a venomous rattlesnake as an outdoorsy boy of 12 and rose to lead the science center through an era of growth and prosperity as its president since 2000, said Friday he will step down at the end of the year.

“It’s been 13 years, and it’s time to let someone else take it to the proverbial ‘next level,’ ” said Mackay, 64.

During Mackay’s tenure as president, the museum renovated its Tryon Street building, expanded with Discovery Place Kids centers in Huntersville and Rockingham, and brought in national-caliber exhibitions “Body Worlds,” “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Pompeii.”

A committee led by Dr. Joan Lorden of UNC Charlotte and Mark McGoldrick of Home Services Lending will conduct a national search for a new leader.

“With John’s leadership, Discovery Place has expanded, excelled and been recognized as one of the nation’s leading science centers,” Chris Perri, Discovery Place board chair, said in a statement. “He leaves both a legacy of innovation and big shoes to fill.”

Mackay is recognized in cultural circles as earnest, affable, ever the classic Southern gentleman with a wry, snap-jaw wit.

He came to love nature under the influence of his father, who was known as “Swamp John” Mackay while growing up on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. They would hunt critters together – rodents to gators.

Young Mackay returned from a vacation with his dad with a pygmy rattlesnake. They took it to the Charlotte Nature Museum, which Discovery Place now runs, to see if they wanted it.

Yes, they did. It was one of only two venomous snakes the facility didn’t have in its collection (a coral snake was the other).

Started as volunteer

Staff at the center liked Mackay, and soon he was working as a volunteer, cleaning up after the animals, then working part time through the summers of his college years. He liked the energy of the place. “I was always struck by grown-ups who were just as excited as kids by nature,” he said.

Mackay attended East Mecklenburg High School and went to UNC Chapel Hill to study music, but he kept feeling the tug of science, and he graduated with a master’s degree in biology. He moved to a little red farmhouse in the foothills near Brevard and tried his hand at being a sculptor.

“I almost starved,” Mackay said. Nobody wanted to buy carved figurines of woodland creatures. His schoolteacher wife, Lucille, kept the family afloat.

Giving up on sculpting after about two years, he went to Appalachian State University in Boone, where he became director of the office of environmental studies.

Mackay returned to Charlotte as part of a team working out of a South End warehouse planning the Discovery Place museum on North Tryon Street in uptown, which opened on Halloween 1981. He helped design the center’s rainforest habitat and aquariums.

He moved up through the ranks, serving as coordinator of biological sciences, director of educational programs, and vice president of planning, research and development.

Mackay left in 1992 to develop the $40 million McWane Science Center in downtown Birmingham, Ala., where he was president.

In 2000, he returned to lead Discovery Place, replacing the center’s first president, Freda Nicholson.

Some hard times

Five months after taking the job, Mackay had to address the painful issue of the center’s finances, which were sagging because admissions had been declining for years. He laid off 22 people from its 148-employee staff.

He didn’t know when he was interviewing for the job that Discovery Place’s finances were in dire shape, he told the Observer at the time. “I probably didn’t ask all the questions I should have,” he said.

Mackay pushed to find money for a major renovation of the aging center and to bring in new exhibits to draw visitors. Soon the museum was on the upswing. Rats playing basketball was the talk of town for a time, and Discovery Place moved up to be the state’s No. 2 cultural attraction behind the Biltmore House in Asheville.

Center’s turning point

Mackay says the turning point for the center was the “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit in 2006. He was part of the Discovery Place team that went to Israel to pick out the 2,000-year-old specimens, including two that had never been publicly displayed.

That exhibit allowed the museum to build up its reserves and put it on a firm financial foundation that continues to this day. Other major exhibits such as “Pompeii” and “Body Worlds” further strengthened its position and brought it into national prominence.

In 2010, the Tryon Street building underwent at $31.6 million renovation, which included expansion of its basement aquarium. Last year, Discovery Place drew 668,776 visitors.

Looking ahead

Mackay will be remembered for his ability to bring Discovery Place into step with the modern trend of museums, to go beyond basic scientific displays and into more thoughtful exhibitions. Its 2011 show, “Race: Are We So Different?,” challenged visitors to consider scientific and cultural perspectives on one of society’s most divisive issues.

“He’s piloted that place through all the twists and turns of the economy and the trend in the museum field to be more reflective,” said Emlyn Koster, director of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. “He navigated that sea very well.”

Another Mackay legacy, Koster said, is the new educational center Discovery Place and Duke Energy are developing to help teachers build skills to inspire students in science, technology, engineering and math. Announced last month, the center – in space provided by Bank of America behind the museum – will serve hundreds of teachers throughout the state.

Mackay said he intends to take time off after leaving at year’s end to think about what he wants to do next. He wants to spend the future in creative ways rather than continuing in an administrative role.

“Being a CEO, you spend your time putting out wildfires,” he said. “I want to get back to my creative roots.”

Washburn: 704-358-5007.
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