Running barefoot through the woods of South Georgia. Close calls with venomous snakes. Selling boiled peanuts for a nickel a bag to folks coming to town for the tobacco auction. No one could have imagined then that this young country boy would someday become such a distinguished man— one who befriended presidents and world leaders as he reached the pinnacle in academia before taking the helm of the renowned Smithsonian Institution.
Now secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian, as well as president emeritus of Georgia Tech, G. Wayne Clough was just a young man growing up in Coffee County when he developed a “sense of wonder about the natural world and how amazing and beautiful and complex it is,” he said. He would develop a lifelong love of learning and exploring. Now retired and splitting his time between homes in Atlanta and Big Canoe, Clough shares stories on what he’s learned about Georgia, his family and the many finds he discovered at the Smithsonian in his third book, “Things New and Strange: A Southerner’s Journey through the Smithsonian Collections.”
Clough will be the featured speaker at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27, in a free program open to everyone. The guest moderator of the event will be Charles Knapp, president emeritus of the University of Georgia.
“He’s a great friend of mine,” Clough said. “We used to be presidents together. We have common interests and enjoy each other’s company, and we have houses near each other in Big Canoe.”
Following Clough’s presentation, a reception and book signing will take place at 5 p.m. Books are available for pre-order at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center. Call 706-342-4743 to reserve a personalized book.
Clough will provide a special student talk from 2 to 3 p.m. that day geared toward students in eighth grade and older, but children of all ages are invited to attend.
As the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution born in the South, Clough was named secretary emeritus when he retired a few years ago. It was then that he decided to see what the Smithsonian collections could tell him about Georgia, the place where he grew up in the 1940s and ’50s. He said it began as a sort of scavenger hunt that uncovered many more objects and documents from his home state than he ever imagined. These items illustrated aspects of Southern culture and history, and he gained insight into how Georgia has changed through the years.
His discoveries, which included animal, plant, fossil and rock specimens, along with cultural artifacts and works of art, served to explain the region and its history, as well as prompting Clough’s memories of his own boyhood growing up in Douglas. In “Things New and Strange,” Clough shares stories of his family and ancestors in a personal narrative style, as he explains how everyone can use museum archives to learn more about family, community and natural history. He also includes his interview with former President Jimmy Carter.
While doing his research, Clough said he learned about the giant sloth, bigger than an elephant that once lived in Georgia, as did giant mammoths, giant water buffalo and stories of conservation efforts to save alligators, wild turkeys and the black bear.
While Clough has published more than 130 papers and reports and written chapters in six books on geotechnical engineering, this is his third book. His first book, “Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries and Archives in a Digital Age,” came out in 2013 and offers insight into how digital technologies alter existing institutions and enable learning and research anytime and anywhere. His second book, which came out in 2016, “Seeing the Universe from Here: Field Notes from My Smithsonian Travels,” is just that: a detailed journal of his experiences and discoveries while on travels for the Smithsonian. Stories range from anthropology in Antarctica to pre-Colombian history in Peru, to climate change in Wyoming to preserving endangered species in Kenya and Panama, and much more.
Clough was 66 when he became the 12th secretary in the history of the Smithsonian Institution in 2008. He had just served 14 years as president of Georgia Tech, where annual research expenditures increased from $212 million to $473 million; enrollment grew from 13,000 to more than 18,000 and Tech consistently ranked among the nation’s top 10 public research universities. He oversaw campuses in Atlanta, France, Ireland, Singapore and Shanghai. In addition to improving Georgia Tech’s reputation in science, Clough also emphasized the humanities, establishing two endowed chairs in poetry; expanded the music department and encouraged the development of degrees combining technology with liberal arts. He led two capital campaigns that raised almost $1.6 billion in private gifts.
Before becoming president of Georgia Tech in 1994, Clough was provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of Washington; dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a professor at Stanford and Duke universities.
Clough received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at Georgia Tech in 1964 and 1965 before heading off to California, where he received his doctorate in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1969.
In addition, Clough previously served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and on the National Science Board. Both appointments required Senate confirmation. He was also vice chairman of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, an organization focused on improving the competitive position of the U.S. in the global economy, and numerous other boards and committees.
Clough said he was honored to be asked to lead the Smithsonian.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful place,” he said. “... I felt like I could do something for my country. I was going to do it for five years but stayed for seven because I enjoyed it all. I wanted to come back and close the circuit a little bit, where my life had started in Douglas. I thought I could do something unique if I found information in the collections from where I grew up.”
Founded in 1846, The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex with 19 museums and the National Zoo, all located in Washington, D.C.
During his tenure as secretary, which is actually the CEO of the institution, he explained, Clough doubled the size of the organization’s affiliates, which are museums and science centers that have common interests with the Smithsonian, including the Tellus Museum in Cartersville and The Georgia Aquarium. He led the effort to digitize records and images for use by teachers and others. He also instituted teacher guides for use throughout the country where all children could be exposed to the Smithsonian.
“I think that came with me because I grew up in a rural area and didn’t get access to the Smithsonian,” Clough said. “There’s nothing like it in the world ... 40% of it is privately funded and 60% is federally supported. In the 60% federally supported, my mother and father paid taxes, but never got to go. I never got to go as a child. People will come up to me and tell me how they visited the Smithsonian when they were 8 years old and it changed their life ... I wanted to make sure the Smithsonian reached as many people as possible.”
Clough is still helping his beloved Smithsonian. All profits from his newest book will go to the institution. The first printing sold out quickly and is already into its second printing. Clough is now working on a fourth book. This one will be about his time as president of Georgia Tech.
His Southern roots run deep, he says. Clough’s family had been in Coffee County for five generations, and it is there that he and his older brother and sister grew up. Their parents ran an ice and coal company in town, and his father would eventually become the mayor and help build the local hospital.
In addition to writing books, Clough enjoys visiting Georgia Tech each week and working with students. He and his wife, Anne, have been married 57 years. They have a daughter and a son and four grandchildren.
The Madison-Morgan program is sponsored by the Georgia Humanities and UGA Press, which published Clough’s book. Partners with the center include The Landmarks Society, the Madison-Morgan Conservancy and the Morgan County African American Museum. Alla and Charles Campbell are sponsoring the reception and Morgan High School’s Career Academy students are creating floral decorations for the day’s program. The Madison-Morgan Cultural Center is located at 434 S. Main St. in Madison.