Long-Time Museum Director Retires After Twenty-Seven Years at Urbana

Joe Besecker, Director and the visionary force behind the Johnny Appleseed Museum and Education Center, retired this month.  
Besecker, who started as a math and science faculty member at Urbana 27 years ago, has headed the museum for more than a decade and has led the transformation from a hobby in a condemned building into a landmark hub that links students, historians, and visitors around the globe to Johnny Appleseed.  

"After inheriting a Johnny Appleseed Foundation from Dawes Arboretum in 1995, the interest in Johnny just kept growing; he meant so much to other people.  I knew connecting Johnny to Urbana would be an asset to the University that would draw a whole new contingency. Over the years, it gave us a whole new group of new friends that supported Urbana University,” stated Besecker.  “I leave this place with many mixed emotions.  My interim successor, Cheryl Ogden, is talented and the museum has amazing, committed volunteers.  I feel that bigger and better days are still ahead.  It’s been a joy seeing this all happen.”  

In Besecker’s tenure, he conducted a campaign that raised over one million to renovate and preserve both Barclay and Bailey halls.  Dr. Hazard, president emeritus, appointed him the Director of Development in 1998 with the specific intent to seek support for building restoration for the halls.  Besecker flourished in this roll and quickly points out that the Bailey hall, which currently houses the museum, still has its original windows.  

One of Besecker’s final achievement was obtaining an Ohio Cultural Facilities grant, which through additional fund raising, allowed a re-opening of the Johnny Appleseed Museum and Education Center in April 2011.  The 1,000 square-foot education center most notably features the Chapman family bible which was used by Johnny in his travels, a cider press that was used to press apples from trees planted by Johnny, and letters from 1948 between Walt Disney Studios and alumna Florence Murdoch. The museum also engages visitors with interactive technology.

"The most prized possession in the museum is Johnny’s bible.  I stayed in touch with the relatives for more than 15 years—it was a welcomed surprise when they called ready to make the gift to the museum. It is such an amazing piece of history," shares Besecker.

The Johnny Appleseed Museum and Education Center receives up to 2,000 visitors each year. Through Besecker’s passion and enthusiasm, there are over 300 annual Johnny Appleseed Society members and more than 50 secondary schools are registered and certified by the museum.

"In my time at the museum, I have seen it go from a group of three committed volunteers to seeing the museum host visitors from every county in the state, every state in the nation and from all over the world," he said.

Both Besecker and the museum are major resources for authors researching Johnny Appleseed.  His knowledge helps facilitate authors’ research and the museum has received recognition in the following biographical books for being a critical contributor:  Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History by William Kerrigan, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, The Myth, The American Story by Howard Means, and The Core of Johnny Appleseed: The Unknown Story of a Spiritual Trailblazer by Ray Silverman. In May 2011, C-SPAN featured Howard Means discussing his book and the Johnny Appleseed Museum and Educational Center hosted the event.

The 69-year-old Ohio native taught high school math and science and owned a sporting goods store before coming to Urbana in 1985.  He recalls that Bailey was padlocked when he started at the institution and fondly recalls teaching one of the first classes in the Moore Math and Science Center, a welcomed space after a period spent in the makeshift trailer classrooms.  Besecker smiles when he recalls this special moment and shakes his head laughing at his journey from faculty, to Director of Development, to Director of the Johnny Appleseed Museum and Education Center.

Besecker’s plans to volunteer his time at the museum in the future.  He also looks forward to spending time in warmer climate and with his wife Renee and their children: Barry, Bret, Samantha, and Tabitha.    

The Johnny Appleseed Museum and Education Center will maintain operating hours and looks forward to increasing its visitor registry in 2013.  Cheryl Ogden ’12 is serving as the museum’s interim director and a committee has been formed to conduct a national search for Besecker’s successor.  Jim Thornton, the Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Communications, will lead the committee.

 "I have given my all to this great enterprise. I am certain the future is exceptionally bright for the Johnny Appleseed Education Center," Besecker said. "A big piece of my heart will always be right here at the museum.”


By Kat Steiner


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