Controversy Dogs Director of Science Museum : Muchmore Matches His Achievements With Conflicts

Times Staff Writer

To some, Don Muchmore is a veritable superman. He’s a mild-mannered museum director who typically starts the day with 1,000 push-ups and 1,000 sit-ups--among other exercises. All that occurs before the 62-year-old leaves his home in Long Beach around 6 a.m. and heads for the California Museum of Science and Industry. In his first 19 months on the job there, he personally raised much of the $43 million funding for a razzle-dazzle overhaul of the place.

Then, to the astonishment of both supporters and critics alike, Muchmore did more than leap tall buildings. He put up four new ones--almost in a single bound--in time for the ’84 Olympics. As a final touch, Muchmore parked a DC-3 and a DC-8 out front, leaving those who didn’t know about the museum’s new Aerospace Complex wondering if an airport had suddenly landed in the neighborhood.

Reeling In the Bucks

He is a man just like his name. You name it and Don Muchmore has probably done much more, whether it’s reeling in bucks or attracting controversy. While many of the museum’s trustees regard him as a high-flying dynamo who’s dedicated nearly every waking hour of his life to improving the museum, Muchmore has also managed to alienate a citizens advisory committee of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), not to mention more than a few members of his museum staff.

According to many employees, a serious morale problem has been festering at the museum since Muchmore took over the executive director’s job in October, 1982.

The staff members claim that under Muchmore’s administration, a number of workers have had their jobs threatened, have suffered verbal abuse or have been harassed with false accusations--all of which the director willingly discusses.


Morale ‘Zero Minus Zero’

As Sondra Scott, a 10-year secretary in the museum’s public relations department, described the overall situation, “The morale here is zero minus zero. . . . I’m tired of seeing the degradation of the employees. I can stand up for myself but my heart bleeds to see how these people are treated . . . They’re afraid. A lot of them are so tired of the mental harassment that they’re like beaten jellyfish. . . . He (Muchmore) is a smooth, slick, personable museum director. That’s what the public sees. The employees see a different person.”

In the eyes of the CRA’s Project Area Committee for the Hoover Volunteer Redevelopment Project, the museum has also been insensitive to its surrounding community. The committee claims the museum went ahead without filing required environmental impact reports and installed the “asphalt garden” on which airplanes rest outside the museum. The group has threatened to file a lawsuit against the museum for paving this chunk of Exposition Park green space.

Muchmore, however, insists that the proper reports were indeed filed. In addition, he said, both the county and the state have filed suits challenging the right of the CRA to intervene in the area.

That Muchmore has matched his achievements with nearly as much conflict was noted by one of his admirers on the museum foundation’s advisory board.

“Muchmore’s the kind of person who excites and creates different opinions. He’s very good or very bad,” Donald P. Loker, a private investor and long-term museum board member, said. “He’s extremely ambitious and extremely forward looking. He wants to build an enormously important museum. There’s nothing blameworthy in that . . . I’m sort of adjusted to Don Muchmore. He’s a smart spark plug.”

Perhaps the problem that most clearly galvanized a block of employees against the museum’s man of steel came in 1983 when Muchmore decided to replace his entire staff of security officers with state police personnel.

In Muchmore’s thinking, it was the only logical thing to do. “These people (the security officers) were not trained people,” he said, sitting in his office at the museum. “People wouldn’t loan us things because our security was so bad. I felt security was an essential problem that needed to be improved. People didn’t feel safe.” Eventually, recalled Muchmore, an agreement was reached “with Maxine (state assemblywoman Maxine Waters) and the (state’s) General Services Administration that we would spend a year training them (the officers) and getting them qualified to become state police officers.”

As Muchmore told it, it sounded like a simple process. But why was it necessary for a state legislator to be involved?

Speeding-Bullet Pace

Replied Muchmore, speaking at his characteristic, speeding-bullet pace, “They (the security officers) brought Maxine into it because Maxine wanted to get into it and it made good press coverage.”

According to Waters, who chairs the Assembly subcommittee that holds budget hearings on the museum’s state funding, there is another version to the story.

“I got dragged into that,” she said by telephone from Sacramento. “When Muchmore tried to get rid of those security officers, they had written to everyone under the sun and gotten no help. I reluctantly got involved. They’d written to several other members of the Legislature. I was at Exposition Park on another occasion when a guard stopped me and asked why wouldn’t anybody help them.”

Waters investigated the situation, she recalled, and then decided to help the officers.

“I absolutely forced the issue,” Waters said, “and fought it all the way through to the governor’s desk and was able to retain those security officers. It was a real struggle. Muchmore fought it every inch of the way.”

Many of the museum’s security officers who went through the training have now become state police. Those who did not qualify or chose not to become state police have been retained as the museum as security officers.

Harassment Charged

In a related, recent matter, Waters revealed, Muchmore “attempted to contract out the (museum) parking attendants’ jobs but he couldn’t prove it could be done cheaper than it was being done with state employees. I put a stop to that in the current budget.”

But job security is not the only problem that security officers and parking attendants have faced under Muchmore. In interviews with The Times, a male security officer and a female parking attendant said they (and another male security officer) were unfairly harassed when the two men were charged with molesting the woman.

Both the woman and one of the men allegedly involved in the molestation claimed that nothing had occurred of a sexual nature and that the three were merely talking with each other.

When asked about the false charges, Muchmore responded that one of his administrators--whom he later fired--somehow mistakenly had assumed a molestation had taken place.

Many of the museum workers have additional stories to relate, incidents in which they feel they received abusive treatment from the director or one of his administrators. In addressing several of these cases presented to him, Muchmore replied by explaining a logical reason for his or a supervisor’s behavior, by denying what the employee charged or by acknowledging that some incidents had been the result of the pressure and tension he was working under before the Olympics.

Strongly Supportive

But despite the critics, there are also employees who are strongly supportive of Muchmore. Richard Haines, who markets the museum’s IMAX Theater, for instance, finds his boss “inspiring.”

“As long as you do your job, you’ve got no problem. He doesn’t expect you to work day and night like he does but I do,” Haines said. “There are very few people who last here if they just come in for coffee breaks and lunch.”

Asked if Muchmore has any weaknesses, Haines thought for a moment and then replied, “Everybody has weaknesses. His don’t show.”

Muchmore’s current secretary, Mike Lucero, similarly indicated he enjoys “working for Mr. Muchmore. He’s interesting to work with. He can do so many things.”

Lucero is Muchmore’s fifth secretary in 2 1/2 years. Not all of them were as satisfied with their positions as he is. One of them, brought in by Muchmore from a firm for which he previously worked, resigned after eight months.

“I got tired of constantly being belittled and accused. I made mistakes, tons of them, but they were partially due to the overload of work,” she told The Times. “After I left it took me four months to get my self-esteem and self-respect back.”

Questioned about the high turnover rate of his secretaries, Muchmore said that one secretary left the museum because she was accosted in the area and another simply disappeared with her boyfriend. Of the others, he figured, “Maybe these people didn’t realize the significance of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“Nobody’s perfect. Muchmore gets an A-minus,” said Joseph Cerrell, a well-known political consultant and PR man who served as the president of the museum’s state board of directors when Muchmore was hired the second time around. (Muchmore was also museum director from 1957 to 1962, when he left to work at California Federal Savings & Loan, where he rose to senior vice president.)

“When you put it all together, one of my best accomplishments (as president) was hiring Don,” said Cerrell, who is currently a museum foundation board member. “His greatest strengths are raising money and his energy for trying to make the museum the best of its kind this side of the Smithsonian . . . He’s tireless. I hired him because he’s dynamite. He lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the museum. I think it’s his whole life and that’s just what I wanted.”

Cerrell maintained that he’d only heard about “minor stuff” with regard to a morale problem at the museum. Minor stuff such as a complaint that after all the work to prepare the museum for the Olympics, many employees felt insulted when their thank-you amounted to a picnic in which they were served poor boy sandwiches, soft drinks and beer--after they had witnessed many lavish parties at the museum for patrons and those with access to corporate hospitality suites.

Cerrell recalled that he had paid for the beer and soft drinks himself and that Muchmore had paid for the sandwiches.

He said that he suspected that the employees were also upset because the previous museum director, William McCann (who died in 1982), “was a sweetheart, an easygoing guy” in contrast to a demanding Muchmore. (Under McCann, for example, museum employees were accustomed to attending a number of parties each year, including a Christmas fete with champagne and live music. Under Muchmore, last year’s museum-sponsored Christmas party was canceled because cost overruns on construction have left the museum $1.6 million in debt.)

Cerrell said he also suspected that some employees may be upset because Muchmore “has been a tougher taskmaster than his predecessor . . . It’s made people who were sitting on their duffs angry. They’ve been asked to work a little harder. The museum has almost quadrupled in size. Attendance is up. The number of employees has not increased that much. They are under more pressure. It’s just the basic facts of state government right now.”

‘Wants to Do Everything’

As for any shortcomings the director might have, Cerrell speculated that Muchmore’s great strength is also his great weakness: “overextending himself--he wants to do everything and you can’t do everything. You can’t be involved in everything from picking up the trash to getting a million dollar grant. It isn’t that he can’t delegate. He can delegate. He’s on every committee because he wants to be. He thinks nothing of red-eyeing it. I don’t think it’s as effective. He says, ‘If I don’t, I lose a day at the museum.’ ”

Morgan Harris, the executive headhunter who was called in by the museum when it needed a new director, also gives Muchmore high marks for his performance.

“One of the specialties I engage in (as a search consultant) is museum directors,” said Harris, who is a managing partner of Korn/Ferry International. “I looked at about a dozen museum directors around the country pretty seriously for this job. I considered 75 to 100. I looked at everybody in the universe and decided on Muchmore. He had a proven track record as a business leader and experience dealing with the private and public sectors.”

(Muchmore had brief careers as a college teacher, college administrator and for about a year and a half, as the vice chancellor of the California college system. And from 1949 to 1971, while he was holding down other full-time jobs, he ran his own polling, public relations and marketing firms.)

In the process of headhunting Muchmore, Harris was so impressed with his super quarry that he wound up joining the foundation’s advisory board as assistant secretary, although he said he almost never accepts such offers.

‘Don’t Have the Drive’

“You don’t find many museum directors who are as dynamic as this,” he explained. “They don’t have the drive that you associate with private enterprise or the skills and experience of Don. I felt we had the best of all worlds with him.”

On top of it all, Harris found that Muchmore had a very special quality rarely found among museum directors. He actually enjoyed asking people for money.

“There is a syndrome of museum directors who believe that fund raising is beneath them. They may have an ‘angel’ who takes care of them, but generally speaking they don’t. Unless a museum director can do this, with a development director, he’s not going to realize a museum’s aspirations.”

Harris recounted how fund raising with Muchmore works: “A trustee will introduce the museum director to a prospective donor. At most museums, that’s all the director does (in fund raising). But Don Muchmore does the closing for you. He actually goes back to the prospect and says ‘How much are you going to give?’ His courageousness in all this is his single greatest virtue.”

Janis Berman, a member of both the museum’s state and foundation boards and a woman who served as acting director until Muchmore took over, also stands squarely behind the museum director.

“If there’s any problems that Muchmore’s having, it’s because he doesn’t have enough staff. I’m sure it’s because he’s overextended,” she said. “I think the man puts in an 18-hour day every single day. As we’re trying to move fast, I’m sure Don’s stepping on some toes, especially those of civil servants who’ve been there many years. The state board has always been supportive of him as has the foundation board.”

Recently, Don Muchmore has been plagued with headaches. But he suspects it’s not personnel problems or clashes with the Community Redevelopment Agency that are responsible.

In Muchmore’s opinion, which he outlined at a long, almost leisurely lunch served on the conference table in his office, the source of his headaches and sleeping difficulties is the museum’s nagging, $1.6-million debt from construction overruns.

Muchmore said the remaining $1.6 million of a $3 million debt prevents the museum from moving ahead on many of its other exciting plans--projects for which he believes people are eager to give money or for which donations have already been promised.

Muchmore explained that it’s a relative snap to get funding for buildings that bear people’s names or exhibits that expose the public to the work and products of private corporations. But even a man whom people consider more powerful than a locomotive may have trouble getting people to fork over money for old debts.

“This $1.6 million is driving me crazy. I wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘What the hell is happening to me sitting here watching an old movie like this?’ The thing that really bugs me about (the debt) is I wonder if I had been more administratively organized if we could have avoided it. My feeling is I guess I cannot accept what I consider to be a failure,” Muchmore reflected.

“I’m an honest guy. I don’t believe in owing people money. Yet here I am with $1.6 million owing . . . Nobody gives money to pay debts.”

So he worries. And tries to come up with ways to knock out the debt. He revealed that he even loaned the museum $130,000 of his own money to help out. In addition, Muchmore said he took about a 40% pay-and-benefits cut when he left California Federal to work at the museum.

Since last September, he added, he’s only drawn his state salary of about $58,000 and not collected his second salary of about $36,000, paid by the museum’s foundation. He indicated he’s done this because of the debt and because the state of California has not yet made up its mind if it’s legal for him to receive compensation from both the foundation and the state.

Whatever the decision, no one characterizes Muchmore as a man who took the job for the money.

He emphasized that the museum represents an important symbol to him, a reminder of his young grandson who was diagnosed as having leukemia before he decided to return to the museum. He said the plight of his grandson, and his concern for all children, prompted him to accept the job.

Lives Alone

Divorced from his wife of 28 years, Muchmore lives alone in Long Beach, the city where he grew up and has lived all but the first two years of his life. (He was born in Wichita, Kan., the son of a housewife and a bakery route driver turned bakery manager.)

He doesn’t have much contact with his ex-wife, Muchmore said, and his two, grown daughters live elsewhere. One is a fund-raiser at UC Santa Barbara. The other is a mother of three young children and resides in Seattle. He tries to see his daughters and grandchildren as often as he can, but it’s not often enough, he lamented.

So what does he do for sheer enjoyment?

“I guess my most fun really comes from walking down the hallways and seeing people in the museum,” he answered. “That gives me the incentive to go get the money so we can do more. I like people. I have a fairly narrow circle of friends. I enjoy talking with them and being with them. I enjoy reading, but it’s to put me to sleep and give me relaxation.”

Reading is a pastime with which Muchmore is extremely familiar. By his count, he now reads about 40 books a month and said he developed the habit when he spent much of his youth inside hospitals undergoing 34 operations for osteomyelitis.

The bone disease forced him to wear a tube inserted in a leg bone. Swimming was one of the many things he was forbidden to do, Muchmore remembered, and thus he invented a plug for sealing off the tube so he could safely swim. He said the invention was later patented and its patent donated to a hospital.

Hypertension Threat

In one of several subsequent conversations, Muchmore recalled how another serious medical problem also changed his life dramatically. At age 33, his doctor told him that hypertension was threatening his life and that he needed to lose weight fast.

Muchmore dropped from 217 to 147 pounds in three months and has since remained at about that weight. “My problem was I was running four businesses and teaching full time and being a college administrator,” he pointed out.

But even with dietary modifications and stringent exercise workouts, Muchmore has more closely resembled Clark Kent than Superman with regard to health problems. A few weeks ago, for instance, he underwent his fifth hernia operation, an 81-stitch ordeal. But in typical Muchmore fashion, he had the surgery done on a Friday and on the following Monday he was in Sacramento lobbying on behalf of his museum budget.

As for the problems he’s encountered with some museum employees, Muchmore acknowledged his part in them. “I am hard on people. I am tough on people. No question about it. But people who want something great for the museum don’t mind it,” he said. “There have been people who’ve criticized me for achieving for the sake of achievement and in so doing not thinking about human relationships as I should. I sometimes place more value on getting an exhibit finished than in stopping to thank someone.

“I have blind spots like everybody else . . . There’s no way I’m perfect . . . Sometimes I’ve been called ruthless because I may walk on toes to get there. Much of it is created by the rules and regulations that force you to be that way.

List of Achievements

“I work hard trying to develop patterns where we don’t get enmeshed in state bureaucracy. I think in the long run the museum should perhaps wind up being operated by the foundation with the state board controlling the property.”

In the meantime, as one might expect, Muchmore has so much to do. He ticked off a long list of achievements since he became director--a 60% increase in attendance (an expected 5.2 million visitors in the year ending July 1), a 25% increase in the number of museum volunteers, a 600% increase in the number of museum memberships (they were quite low), an annual 30% increase in the museum’s state budget--and he contemplated an even longer list of objectives not yet achieved.

Then he paused and attached one more statistic to the first list: “a 500% increase in headaches.”

Muchmore didn’t seem too disturbed, though, and acted as if headaches and criticisms were to be expected in the never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.

As he put it, “I don’t mind this other (negative) stuff. If you don’t have that, you’re not worth much in this world.”