The Catawba Science Center has educated hundreds of thousands of people about the natural world since it opened as the Creative Museum for Youth in 1975.
For most of that time, Mark Sinclair has guided its steady growth, most recently leading the center's first money-raising campaign and a major expansion that added an aquarium and planetarium.
Now that the center is regarded as a quality science museum for a town of Hickory's size, Sinclair is stepping down, planning a life without science, his first love.
He announced his retirement to center board members and staff in June. The board immediately formed a committee to search for his replacement and named Sinclair as its chairman. He plans to leave July 3, 21 years after taking the job.
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Colleagues and employees credit Sinclair with building the center into a regional draw.
“The science center is way beyond anything I ever dreamed it would become, and Mark Sinclair is no small part of that,” said Mickey Shuford, who, as former president of the Service League of Hickory, led the effort to start the museum.
Since Sinclair has become the face of the center, news of his departure saddened staff, board members and benefactors. But Sinclair and board members say his work gives the center a bright future.
In some ways, his decision came easily. Sinclair said every executive director needs “to know when it's time to go.” He wants to do more church mission work, travel and experience life with his family.
“I've given them what I've got,” said Sinclair, 60.
In other ways, he knows that ending a career in science won't come easy.
“It will be a challenge to say, ‘Hi, I'm Mark Sinclair,' and not say, ‘I'm director of the Catawba Science Center.' There will be an identity crisis.”
Sinclair fell for science as a child growing up in Carmel Valley, Calif. His family moved there from his native Baltimore so his chemist father could work on explosive bolts for the Navy's Surveyor spacecraft.
The young Sinclair spent much of his free time playing in the tidal pools on nearby Cannery Row, looking for animals.
“It was magic,” he remembered. “I've always been a biologist.”
In college he wrote about the aggressive behavior of stone crabs for his master's thesis. Though he loved the research, he realized his work would have a small audience.
That fact – and his marriage to a science teacher – moved him to Florida to take a job at the then-small Orlando Science Center. He advanced to the directorship in four years.
Sinclair knew he'd made the right decision. His work affected thousands of people instead of just a few dozen fellow scientists. But after nine years as director, Sinclair wanted a quieter place to raise his young family.
Catawba Science Center hired him as its third director, and he quickly made inroads with supporters. As the center has grown over the past 10 years, Sinclair said he's spent at least half his time raising money. He's gotten so good at it that he's known for his skill, even asking a reporter interviewing him about his retirement to write that he needs $5,000 for an upcoming exhibit.
“I don't think anybody ever turned him down,” said Sally Blackwelder, a former center board member who helped start the museum. “He would ask for things that most people would've said, ‘No, I'm sorry, I can't do that,' and he would get what he wanted.”
Under Sinclair, the center grew from a $250,000 budget with six full-time staff and an almost nonexistent endowment to a $1.6 million budget, 52 full- and part-time staff and a $1 million endowment. Last year's expansion drew the most visitors ever.
But he has most enjoyed the exhibits and the people who visit them. He can often be found talking to children at the center, passing out candy to soothe the restless ones.
Described by employees as an easy-going yet energetic optimist, Sinclair is proud of his accomplishments, especially the expansion. Pointing to a stack of bright-green visitor surveys, he said the public asked for the live animals now on display at the aquarium.
He and wife Thea will keep supporting the center. It's even in their will.
“I pledged to leave the museum better than I found it and take them to the next level,” Sinclair said. “Looking back, we went up a couple levels.”