After 16 years as the director of Humanities Texas, and 31 years as an employee of the National Archives before that, Baytonian Michael Gillette is retired and ready to focus on family.
The 1964 Robert E. Lee Graduate hopes to continue the work he loves.
“I’m going to do some research and writing. I am a historian by training, and I have some books that I want to write,” Gillette said. “I want to spend time with my grandkids and kids that live in Seattle, Houston and New York.”
“My wife and I also want to travel some,” he added.
During his time at Humanities Texas, a nonprofit organization that promotes educational excellence, Gillette raised almost $19 million in grants and gifts, including $4 million for the purchase and restoration of the historic Byrne-Reed House as the organization’s headquarters.
“Profound gratitude to Mike Gillette for his extraordinary leadership of Humanities Texas over the past 16 years, during which the organization has become what is widely regarded as one of the preeminent state humanities councils in the nation,” John Kerr, chairman of the Humanities Texas board of directors, said of his retirement.
Gillette had many significant accomplishments as executive director of Humanities Texas but one that stands out is the discovery of the Byrne-Reed House. In 2005, Humanities Texas was looking for a new home and began looking at historic properties when it came across a peculiar home.
“We purchased and restored this 100-year-old mansion five blocks from the Texas Capitol that no one knew was there, including us,” Gillette said. “It had been entombed in a modern stucco façade.”
At first, the stucco exterior caused Humanities Texas to ignore it, but after negotiations for another building in the same neighborhood fell through, it inquired about the Byrne-Reed house once more.
During a tour of the mansion, Gillette saw a framed photograph of its original exterior, which was utterly different to its state at the time.
After raising the money to purchase and restore the mansion, Architect Larry Speck was able to transform the building back to its original glory.
“That was an exciting project,” Gillette said. “It took us a year to do the restoration. And that certainly gave us the visibility that we had never had in the organization that had been around about 35 years for then.”
Once complete, the restoration captured public attention, receiving 11 architectural awards and significant coverage in national and statewide magazines.
While finding and restoring a Texas relic was a unique project, the real joy and sense of accomplishment came from improving the quality of classroom teaching.
“To receive state funding for our professional development programs for classroom teachers was significant,” Gillette said. “That enabled us to really expand the educational programs for classroom teachers in history, government and language arts.”
The funding allows for Humanities Texas to provide as many as 24 one-day workshops across the state and about six three-day residential programs on university campuses.
Gillette said Baytown teachers have also benefitted from the programs.
“Most of the effort goes into helping good teachers become great teachers and helping new teachers become good teachers,” Gillette said.
Throughout Gillette’s tenure, Humanities Texas conducted more than 250 highly-rated professional development programs for Texas classroom teachers. The workshops enlisted leading scholars for the faculty, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historians David Oshinsky, Gordon Wood and David Kennedy.
Before Humanities Texas, Gillette worked for the National Archives and ran the Oral History program at the Johnson Library. During the last 12 years at the National Archives, Gillette was in Washington D.C. where he was in charge of the historical legislative records of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
As an oral history expert, Gillette put out the authoritative “Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History,” during his time there.
“In terms of oral history, (Johnson) had a marvelous command of the language. Her oral prose just speaking was better than a lot of people’s written prose,” Gillette said. “If you read the book, you will see that she had wonderful ways of describing scenes and events. And of course, life with Lyndon Johnson put her in a position of having a lot of fascinating experiences to describe.”
Through Gillette’s professional relationship with Johnson, they cultivated a lasting friendship. She was among those in attendance at his wedding.
Gillette’s captivating and accomplished career is a product of his upbringing in Baytown, where he grew up with his brother John and sister Jane.
As a graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, Gillette was involved and served as a member of the Key Club, yearbook staff and played baseball and basketball.
“The Key Club initiated a petition drive in which all the high school service clubs participated to build a community center,” Gillette said. “Fred Hartman told me that it was the first time that 8,000 Baytown citizens signed their names to anything.”
“Frank Terry, the Key Club president, and I received the Baytown Community Service Award, but, as I’ve indicated, all of the high school service organizations participated,” he added.
While growing up in Baytown, his biggest influence was his dad, Bob Gillette, who was a great civic leader in the city. As an attorney and former Commissioner of the Port of Houston, he would become The Baytown Sun’s Citizen of the Year in 1998.
“In so many ways he certainly set a great example as a father, and one that I tried to live up to with three sons,” Gillette said. “It didn’t matter how hard he worked or how tired he was because he always found time to spend time with us.”
“More than that, one thing I learned from him was that he always managed to enjoy his work,” he added. “He found humor in it and find ways to look at in ways that it became enjoyable.”
Gillette and his wife, LeAnn live in Austin, enjoying retirement.