SMITHFIELD — The Johnston Heritage Center has named a new but familiar director.
Todd Johnson, head of the Ava Gardner Museum, will soon be working a block away as new director of the Heritage Center. He served as its first director from 1997 to 2003, overseeing its move from a room in the Smithfield library to the former bank building across Third Street. He left to write books and work as a freelance historian.
Johnson is replacing Wingate Lassiter, who retired in March after becoming director when Johnson left.
Johnson said he decided to apply because his passion is in local history and genealogy research. “When Wingate told me he was retiring, I thought, you know, maybe this is a good time for me to go back and continue to build on the things that I did and that other people have done, because that’s where my passion is,” he said.
Johnson’s family is from Johnston County and can trace its roots back more than 250 years, he said. “I just feel a very strong connection,” he said. “It’s just time to go back home. I feel like the Heritage Center is home for me.”
Johnson will start at the Heritage Center on May 27. He plans to focus on digitizing the collections so that people can access their history online. He also wants to find topics about Johnston County that haven’t yet had exhibit space and are relevant to today. Attracting the younger generation to the history of Johnston County is also a priority, he said.
The Ava Gardner Museum is accepting applications for the job, and chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt said she hopes to have a replacement around the time Johnson leaves. But if the museum hasn’t found someone by the end of May, board members will fill in until they find the replacement.
“We are devastated to lose Todd, but we certainly wish him well, and he will do a wonderful job there,” Wyatt said.
Johnson, who started at the Ava Gardner Museum in 2011, said he is most proud of helping Mearene Jordan publish her book “Living With Miss G.” Jordan was Ava Gardner’s maid, assistant and friend. Johnson was also able to coordinate a meeting between Jordan and a screenwriter in Australia who might produce a movie based off the book.
Johnson is also proud that the museum was able to take over Gardner’s trust, which controls the rights to use her voice and image.
Lassiter, 67, said he felt it was time to retire. “I felt like I got to the point where I probably had done as much as I could probably do there and it was time to turn it over to somebody else,” he said.
As for what’s next, Lassiter doesn’t have any definite plans, but he will continue his in-house publishing business. During his run as director, Lassiter said, he is proud that he was able to build on the foundation started at the library in 1967. That includes collecting local history and genealogy, organizing it and making it accessible to the public.
The Heritage Center is supported by county tax dollars. Lassiter was making $57,650 when he retired and Johnson will start with $49,208. Fifty people applied for the job.