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Mystic Seaport President Steve White to retire

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Mystic — Steve White, who has led Mystic Seaport Museum from the depths of the recession through the triumphs of the Charles W. Morgan voyage and the opening of the dramatic Thompson Exhibition Building, announced Tuesday he will retire next year.

The 66-year-old, who has led the museum as its president and director since 2009, said the time was right time to step aside as he is entering his 30th year of heading a large nonprofit institution. Before coming to the Seaport, he was the headmaster of the Fay School in Southborough, Mass.

He said the museum is winding down its capital campaign for the Thompson building, and stepping aside now will give his successor the opportunity to lead the museum over the next decade and up to its centennial celebration.

White on Tuesday called his staff and volunteers at the museum "simply the best."

“It’s been an absolute privilege to work with so many dedicated, historically grounded people who believe in the core values of this museum and deliver them every day,” he said.

White said he plans to stay on until the museum hires his successor, which he said could be next summer or fall. The museum has hired a Boston firm to assist with the search, which will begin next month. Former museum board of trustees Chairman Barclay Collins will head the search committee.

“The Board appreciates and thanks Steve for his passion and commitment in strengthening the Museum’s assets — staff, programming, and facilities — as a foundation to broaden and diversify our audience as we head into our 90th year,” said Michael S. Hudner, current board of trustees chairman, in announcing White’s retirement on Tuesday.

When White took over from former President Doug Teeson, the museum shipyard was just beginning the multimillion-dollar restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last wooden whaling ship. It was White who then asked “If not now, when?” about why the plan did not call for the ship to sail again.

“This decision will lift the museum’s spirit, test its resolve and serve as a symbol of greatness for Mystic Seaport,” White told The Day in the fall of 2009.

The scope of the project was expanded and led to the 2014 voyage of the Morgan to historic New England ports and a meeting with whales off Cape Cod after the restoration was complete.

During White's tenure, the museum built the $15.3 million Thompson building and adjacent McGraw Gallery Quadrangle. The building provides state-of-the art space that allows the museum to display traveling exhibits and makes it more of a year-round destination.

Under his leadership, the museum also restored the steamship Sabino and the Mayflower II and created a plan to reduce the use of plastics. More recently, it has created a partnership with the Mystic-based Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, which will now build a research facility on the museum campus. And plans are underway to demolish the Latitude 41 restaurant and replace it with a boutique hotel and restaurant.

The museum also is planning for a permanent watercraft exhibit hall in the Collections Research Center, which will allow more of its vast boat collection to be on display to the public, and is gearing up to restore the L.A Dunton fishing schooner.

The Seaport also has embarked on a study of how sea level rise will impact the museum, which White called a "great threat" to the museum’s future, and how the museum will respond.

Asked to name his biggest accomplishment, White said he feels it was “rebuilding the museum’s confidence in itself and our status in the community” after the recession.

“It took a lot of hard work by a lot of us,” he said. “Sometimes hard times bind everyone together and that’s what it did for us.”

Today, he said, the Seaport is much more diverse in its programs, opportunities and partners such as the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, which develops undersea research vehicles.

“So the museum is not only doing its very best to chronicle America’s historic relationship with the sea but forecast what America’s relationship with the sea will be,” he said.

Still, he said, sailing the Morgan again is something he will never forget.

“For the maritime heritage community, it was a great thing to see accomplished,” he said.

White said that after retiring, he and his wife plan to remain in the area but also hope to travel. He said he is looking forward to spending time on his hobbies, including genealogy.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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