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Tuesday 19 February 2019
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Larry Koolkin : Renaissance Man of Beaufort History

story by Carol Lauvray    photos by Susan DeLoach
The Road Leading to Beaufort
“I’m definitely a glass-half-full kind of person and believe that serendipity has been prominent in many aspects of my life,” Larry Koolkin says smiling.
Larry and his wife Lainie had been living in the Northeast for much of the past several decades when they found Beaufort by chance, while looking for someplace warmer to call home in retirement. He recalls that during the winters of 2012 and 2013, they embarked from their Vermont home on an adventure down the east coast and across to Galveston, Texas, where they had previously lived. “We were exploring to find the right place—a place that would speak to us,” he says. “We camped in South Carolina at Huntington Beach, Edisto and Hunting Island, in Georgia, and along the panhandle of Florida.” Larry says they thought about moving to Edisto or Charleston, but instead said to each other, “Let’s move to Beaufort—and that was that!”
The Path to Beaufort’s History
“I’ve collected vintage books involving pirates, treasure, adventure, exploration and the Age of Discovery for the last 40 years,” says Larry.  “When we moved to Beaufort in 2014, I had no idea of the depth of local history—the European exploration, pre-Colonial and Revolutionary War history, the antebellum period, the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, and the Civil Rights history that happened right here in Beaufort.”
Larry related that shortly after arriving in Beaufort, he saw an article about the archeological discovery of the Spanish colony of Santa Elena on what is now Parris Island. “Sixteenth Century history is really my sweet spot, so I contacted Andy Beall, who was referenced in the article, to talk with him and learn more.” Larry met with Beall and Michael Marks, the former director of the Coastal Discovery Museum, to learn about the new Santa Elena Foundation and its plans. Larry says, “I left that meeting as a co-chair, along with Michael, of Santa Elena’s Building and Exhibits Committee, with the responsibility of planning and developing the exhibit for the new Santa Elena History Center.”
During the 18-month project to develop Santa Elena’s new exhibits, Larry says he worked closely with Carol Poplin from the Charleston-based exhibit design firm HW Exhibits (formerly known as The History Workshop). “During the project, I also developed a wonderful friendship with Dr. Chester DePratter, discoverer of French Charlesfort and the archaeologist who conducted extensive excavations at the Santa Elena site on Parris Island.” The grand opening of the Santa Elena History Center and its inaugural exhibit was celebrated on April 30, 2016.
Serendipity—being in the right place at the right time—and possessing the experience, skills and keen interest in 16th Century history to take on this kind of project, led Larry to this exciting volunteer opportunity in his new home town. His life experiences had prepared him to successfully manage the development of Santa Elena History Center’s project.
“I’ve had broad experience and success in applied information technology, finance, international business, and museums, as an entrepreneur who has helped to successfully launch and manage a half dozen companies,” Larry said. “Along the way, I’ve held senior positions at MIT’s Project Athena, Ernst & Young International and Ross Capital Markets (both in Bermuda), Springboard Technology Ventures in Prague, and the Boston Museum of Science—and earned graduate degrees in both Museum Studies and Applied Computer Science.” He continued, “After enjoying a 35-year entrepreneurial technology career, volunteering led to working on staff at Boston’s Museum of Science and developed into a new career when I joined their Exhibits Department.”
In September of 2015, while Larry was still in the midst of managing the development and installation of Santa Elena’s inaugural exhibit, the board of directors of Beaufort History Museum (BHM) asked him to consider joining their board. The museum manages the city of Beaufort’s collections of artifacts, photos and documents and is located in the historic Arsenal. BHM was looking for board members who possessed expertise in the areas of both technology and museum exhibits, so Larry’s background was a perfect fit and truly serendipitous for the museum. Because BHM is an all-volunteer organization, the members of its board are directly involved in all aspects of the museum’s management, projects and events.
Since joining Beaufort History Museum’s board, Larry has updated and streamlined every aspect of the museum’s technology infrastructure—from creating a new engaging website built atop an organizational membership management platform … to serving as the museum’s Webmaster … to researching, planning and installing systems to monitor the environment and security of the museum’s exhibits and collections.
Larry was also instrumental in leading the development of the museum’s exhibits over the past three years in his role of co-chairman of the museum’s Exhibits Committee. With the assistance of BHM board member Steve Guida, Larry managed the project to develop the museum’s exhibit, Reconstruction Beaufort: Islands of Hope in a Sea of Distress. That exhibit, funded by accommodations tax grants from the city of Beaufort and Beaufort County, opened at Beaufort History Museum in the summer of 2016. It was a visionary project of the museum to educate the community and visitors about the importance of the Reconstruction Era in Beaufort. The exhibit was developed in large part through the work of many of BHM’s volunteer board members, including Katherine Lang and Paul Keyserling, two members of the original board when the museum was re-formed in 2011. The museum’s Reconstruction Beaufort exhibit is now on long-term loan to the National Park Service’s Reconstruction Era National Monument visitor center, located on Craven Street across from the Arsenal.
Larry explains that to promote the history of Beaufort, the museum has formed partnerships with many local history-oriented organizations. Among these are Santa Elena History Center, Historic Beaufort Foundation’s Verdier House, Fort Fremont, Penn Center, and the National Park Service’s Reconstruction Era National Monument.
As co-chair of the museum’s Exhibits Committee, Larry has also led a multi-year, phased project to completely transform Beaufort History Museum’s main exhibit gallery space, working with BHM’s committee members and HW Exhibits of Charleston. He explains that the first phase of the newly renovated exhibit hall, which opened in May 2018, features colorful and engaging exhibit panels that chronologically detail Beaufort’s pre-historic period through its dramatic 500-year history. Larry states that the second phase of the museum’s renovation project will include additional artifacts, as well as interactive technologies, to engage visitors of all ages and tell Beaufort’s story.
“I’m proud of what I’ve been involved in accomplishing these past three years at Beaufort History Museum in the realms of administration, technology, security, exhibits and collections,” he says. “We’ve achieved a great deal of success in BHM’s exhibits, reflecting our mission of educating visitors about the history of Beaufort County.”
With a wry smile Larry adds, “Some visitors still remember the shrunken head and two-headed snake from the museum years ago and ask where they went!”
The Future
Larry lost his wife Lainie to cancer in 2016, after 43 years together. “In 2018, I was invited to join the board of the Friends of Caroline Hospice, a cause close to my heart. I want to continue to focus my volunteering where it can have an impact,” he explains. “I’m enjoying time with friends and family and traveling again, especially visiting with my daughter Kristin, granddaughter Madeleine and son-in-law Mark, still up in Vermont—not to mention my brother Bob who moved to Beaufort last year!”
He adds, “Although I won’t be serving as a board member after my term expires in January, I look forward to continuing my active support of Beaufort History Museum as its Webmaster and to participating as a member of its Exhibits Committee, as we complete the second phase of the museum’s total exhibition hall renovation.”