IHPA director retires

Pete Sherman

Bob Coomer has seen some changes in the Illinois history and tourism business since 1979, when he began working at the old Illinois Department of Conservation.

Coomer, 62, retired Monday as the director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

For most of his years at the conservation department and then IHPA, Coomer supervised the state’s many historical sites (portions of the conservation department were folded into the newly created IHPA in 1985).

He also worked behind the scenes on architectural and exhibit design plans for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which opened in 2005, a year after Coomer was named IHPA director.

While history-based tourism has long been important to the state, awareness of its relationship with high-powered economics and marketing is relatively new, Coomer said in an interview Monday.

“The (IHPA) mission was always to preserve and interpret our historical resources,” Coomer said. “But we have seen tourism and the economic impact of tourism become major points for the agency. If you talk to (state tourism officials), they’ll tell you 40 percent of tourism into Illinois are those coming to see museum and historic sites. We’ve seen the advent of that.”

As director of IHPA, Coomer oversaw the construction of visitor centers at numerous historical sites run by the state. Enhancing site displays and the overall experience for tourists have also been priorities.

But Coomer points to his involvement in developing plans for the presidential museum as a career highlight. The museum for many marked a turning point from a traditional emphasis on displays and signage to a three-dimensional, multi-sensory experiences drawing visitors into the past.

Although Coomer acknowledges critics who contend that the new Lincoln museum offers a dumbed-down version of history, he said it’s been a success.

“Every history museum opening since then — their people have come to the ALPLM first. It’s become a benchmark. The 95 percent of people — the common man — coming through the museum are engaged in such a way that they’ve learned something and at the same time enjoyed it. It’s been a dream come true.”

Coomer, who grew up in Springfield, said he has no detailed retirement plans yet, though he plans to spend more time with his two grown children.

He did admit to having some thoughts about his future.

“Immediately, I want to step back and reflect on where to go from here,” he said.

“Where to go” was meant metaphorically and literally.

“My first thoughts were to get out of the Illinois winter for a month or two,” he said.

In a press release Monday, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said ALPLM deputy director Jennifer Tirey will serve as IHPA’s acting director until Coomer’s permanent replacement is named.

Pete Sherman can be reached at (217) 788-1539 or