A retired Joplin history professor has been named president of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
Virginia Laas, a trustee of the historical society since 1995, is the second woman to serve at the helm of the organization in its 121-year history.
“It’s really a big honor, and it sounds trite, but I really am so humbled by it, especially being only the second woman to hold this office. And I do feel the responsibility of it all, especially with the celebrations coming up” for the state’s bicentennial in 2021. “I love this state, and it has such a varied history” that is fascinating to study, Laas said.
Laas, professor emerita of history at Missouri Southern State University, is taking the reins at a time when the state’s historical collections were moved from basement quarters at the University of Missouri to a new $35 million Center for Missouri Studies that held its grand opening in August in Columbia. The space, funded by bonds issued by the state, provides space for researchers and genealogists and others to study state historical records and for the display of the society’s art collections.
Ron Richard, former state Senate leader from Joplin, was one of the state officials who worked to secure funding for the new historical society center through a voter-approved bond issue in 2015.
“This has been a huge change for us,” Laas said of the center.
The organization over the years squeaked by financially and, at times, was endangered when state budget cuts were necessary because it had no significant endowments or donations.
Laas explained that the State Historical Society is the main repository for collections of documents about Missouri history, including official state documents and papers from the colonial period to the modern day.
“We have an amazing art collection of Thomas Hart Bentons and George Caleb Binghams,” she said. “It is a remarkable collection for a historical society to own.”
The society’s chief publication, the Missouri Historical Review, had been a showcase of scholarly articles on Missouri’s diverse history since it was started in 1906. Publications and books published by the society are offered for sale in the new center’s Ronald F. and Patty Richard Bookstore, named for the Joplin legislator and his wife.
Laas said that one of the biggest challenges ahead is to establish an endowment program that could help secure the organization’s future.
The society also is working to assist Missourians organize local celebrations of their histories as part of the upcoming bicentennial observance.
A historian employed by the organization, Michael Sweeney, has already visited every one of the state’s 114 counties to help local residents coordinate activities for the bicentennial celebration.
Laas said the state is not deciding what Missourians should do but is encouraging residents to celebrate their local history as part of the state’s 200th anniversary.
“Every county needs to think about their past, whether in Colonial past or something that is modern, that is significant in their part of the state” to decide how to mark the bicentennial, she said.
She has a goal to follow Sweeney’s example and visit all Missouri counties to learn about their histories and their standout contributions to the fabric of the state’s history.
“It’s a daunting job, I’ll say that,” she said of the job of the society’s president. “And one of the things I want to do is make our presence known around the state. We were created in 1898, and we’ve been centered in Columbia the whole time. So I think a lot of people don’t know much about us.”
Laas said she hopes to change that.
Virginia Laas is an author and editor as well as historian. She has twice been past president of the Missouri Conference on History. In Joplin, she is a past board member of ProMusica and is on the board of Spiva Center for the Arts. She currently serves on the boards of the Post Art Library and Sherwood/Rader Farm Civil War Memorial Park.