John Sellars will step away from his administrative duties at the History Museum on the Square on March 1. (Photo: History Museum on the Square)

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John Sellars recalls when he was a boy how his father, a foreman at what was then Lily-Tulip, would slowly drive the streets of Springfield in his 1951 Pontiac telling him stories about Springfield history.

“Dad used to talk about what used to be here and what used to be there,” Sellars says. “He was doing that 60 years ago. That was our form of entertainment. We were too poor for anything else.”

Sellars, now 73, has worked various jobs over his life, but in 2005 he found the one he loved — doing what his father once did — telling the story of this city.

On March 1, Sellars will step aside from his day-to-day administrative duties at the History Museum on the Square and add “emeritus” to his title of executive director.

Make it clear, he tells me, “I am not retiring.”

Sellars will continue to do outreach programs and will host an hour-long radio show on local history at 11 a.m. Wednesdays on KICK 92.3 FM.

“I get to do the fun stuff and Katie gets to do the day-to-day things,” he says.

The new executive director will be Katie Turer, who joined the History Museum on the Square in 2019. She came to Springfield in 2017 to work at the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium.

Prior to that, she worked at the Nantucket Historical Association and Whaling Museum on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. She has a master's degree in museum studies from George Washington University.

Katie Turer will become executive director at the History Museum on the Square. (Photo: History Museum on the Square)

Sellars was born in Springfield and he, his parents and his three siblings lived in an apartment carved out of a large, stately house on East St. Louis Street. They shared a bathroom with the apartment on the other side of the wall.

“St. Louis Street was a beautiful, beautiful street,” he says.

We sit in his office at the museum, and he pulls up a 1930s photo of the street on his computer.

Leafy branches of brawny trees arch over a street lined with handsome houses and manicured lawns.

His family home, he says, once was where the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce building, and its parking lot, are today.

He and his family moved to a bigger home, a farmhouse, in Galloway, and Sellars attended Glendale High School. He was in the class of 1967 — the first class to go to Glendale all four years.

He played football there for two years and hurt his left knee.

“I was a terrible athlete,” he says. He lacked coordination due to an incredible growth spurt.

“I grew 11 inches in one year,” he says.

He attended Southwest Missouri State University. His plan was to become a history teacher. But he dropped out and went to work driving a truck for Colonial Baking Co., earning what was then the princely sum of $15,000 a year.

He tried to join the military but was rejected because of his bad knee.

He found a job at The House of O'Brien, a beverage distributor, as a sales manager. Don O'Brien, who died in 1993, is the father of Hauxeda contributor Mike O'Brien.

Sellars also worked at Brown Derby as a marketing director for John Morris, father of Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops.

Sellars also once managed a produce department at a former Consumers Markets grocery store.

In addition, Sellars says, for six years he was a volunteer reserve police officer in the city of Springfield. He did this, he says, because he was unable to serve in the military, like so many in his family had done.

A 1973 Springfield Leader and Press story recounts how Sellars and another reserve officer were checking businesses on Commercial Street at 3 a.m. when they stopped and arrested a man who was beating and robbing someone.

Sellars has found time over the years for acting in local theater productions and has used his booming voice in musicals such as “Music Man,” in which he played Mayor Shinn.

History museum has roots in country’s bicentennial

John Sellars was one of the people selected to sign the very top beam in the historic Gillioz Theatre after extensive renovation and prior to its reopening in 2006 after 25 years of disuse. (Photo: History Museum on the Square)

His interest in local history, he says, is inherited.

Not only were his parents history buffs, but both his grandmothers could tell a story that got you to the edge of the seat.

“They were wonderful storytellers,” he says. “Grandmother Sellars came here in a covered wagon from Texas.”

Sellars says he possesses a tiny news clip that proclaims to the world that he was the editor of his fourth-grade newspaper.

The museum has been on the downtown square since 2014. The new museum opened a few doors down from the old one in August 2019.

It has its roots in the nation's bicentennial of 1976.

Springfield put together a historical display that, at the time, was intended to be temporary. Sellars was a volunteer.

Before long, supporters decided to make the museum permanent. It initially was located at 311 College St.

In 1977, Drury College (now university) rented the Bentley House — at Calhoun Street and Washington Avenue — to the museum. It was called the Museum of the Ozarks. The museum board bought the building in 1979.

In 1993, the museum sold the Bentley House and moved to the third floor of Old City Hall, where the city offered exhibit space at no cost. The name changed to the History Museum for Springfield and Greene County and operated there for over 15 years.

Sellars returned to Springfield in 2000 from Atlanta, where he had worked for Coca-Cola.

He left the beverage industry in 2004 and was planning to become a real estate agent.

But as fate would have it, the museum's executive director left and Sellars, who had served on the board, stepped in.

“I took it as a temporary job and I found that I loved it,” he says. “I just absolutely loved it.”

Sellars also has dabbled in politics. In November 2010, he came within 100 votes of replacing Democrat Sara Lampe in the statehouse.

Sellars left the museum for a year in 2011 to become executive director of The Fremont, an over 55-retirement community on South Fremont Avenue.

“But that's old news,” he says.

He returned a year later.

I ask Sellars if his highlight as executive director was opening the new museum in 2019.

“Oh yeah. My God, yes.”

Readers of 10Best, a travel-advice website published by USA TODAY, chose the Park Central Square attraction as the country's Best New Attraction for 2019. (The Springfield News-Leader is part of Gannett's USA Today Network.)

The museum has a role in strengthening the community fabric of the city, Sellars says. Springfield must first know its past in order to understand its present.

Why are you stepping aside now?

“There is never a best time for these things, but there is a right time. I have spent the last 17 years doing something that I am so proud of.

“I know that the wonderful team taking over will only make it a greater asset to the community and tell many more stories about this place we call home.

“I was at the right place at the right time and I have been honored and privileged to work with some incredibly smart people.”

This is Pokin Around column No. 15.


Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Hauxeda. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@hauxeda.com. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin