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Port Arthur native Tom Neal takes reins of Museum of the Gulf Coast

As a child, Tom Neal would walk through the bits and pieces of Port Arthur history on display at the Merchant’s National bank. Little could he know then the role he would play in the development and promotion of what would eventually become the Museum of the Gulf Coast.

Neal, who spent nearly 40 years working for Lamar State College-Port Arthur before retiring in 2015, has been named the new director of the Museum with his tenure beginning Monday, Oct. 10. He has been a member of the board of the Port Arthur Historical Society for the past several years.

“As a board member, I already have some ideas and visions of things we’ve always wanted to do, how we want to grow,” he said. “With this chance, I want to work with our community supporters, patrons, volunteers, board and existing staff and work to achieve the goals we’ve already established and search for new opportunities to grow.”

A collection of Port Arthur historical items began as early as 1959 at the Gates Memorial Library and the State of Texas eventually chartered the Port Arthur Museum in 1964. Although chartered, the Museum did not have a home. In 1970, the Historical Society was formed and the collection moved to the lobby of the World Trade Building. After the collection outgrew that location, it was moved to the Merchant’s National Bank, then back to the Library in 1980.

In 1987 the Historical Society board expanded the scope of the collection from Port Arthur to all of Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. By 1994, the current location of the Museum, the former First National Bank on Procter Street, opened to the public.

“People here are proud of our heritage and the culture we’ve developed over generations,” said Neal, who was born in Port Arthur. “We are proud of the remarkable people who have come before us. They’ve shown us that being from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t be phenomenally successful on a national or a worldwide stage. We have so many examples of people who have done that here.”

Among hundreds honored in the museum are Port Arthur’s Robert Rauschenberg, considered worldwide to be the Father of Pop Art, rock and roll queen Janis Joplin, and NFL coaching icons Jimmy Johnson, Bum Phillips and his son Wade Phillips.

“I’ve been working with the Museum and supporting them for years, from back in the 1980s and moving forward,” Neal said. “I’ve volunteered with the Museum, working fundraising, promotions and, most recently, serving on the board of the Historical Society, which oversees the operations of the Museum.”

Neal graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1971 then earned his bachelor’s degree from Lamar University in Beaumont in 1975. He earned his master’s degree from LU in Education Administration in 1983.

After Neal started a career in radio, working for KPAC AM & FM from 1974 through 1978, his focus shifted to education when he became administrative assistant to the Dean of the campus at Lamar University-Port Arthur in 1978. He later became Director of Student Services and Dean of Student Services. LU-PA became Lamar State College-Port Arthur in 1995, where Neal continued as Dean of Student Services until 2001, when he was named Vice President for Student Services.

Neal replaces former MOGC Director David Beard, who recently left for a similar position in Baton Rouge.

“The message of the Museum has been presented for years to area school children, and it is through our youth that our history will continue to live,” Neal said. “I’m thrilled just to be a part of keeping the history of our region alive for future generations to embrace and carry forward.”

Special to The News