The Virginia Museum of Transportation has a new sheriff driving the train.

That mixed metaphor makes sense in light of the fact that Robert Sigman, the Roanoke museum’s new executive director, ran a festival and museum in California dedicated to the history of Western movies and counted classic cowboy movie stars such as the late Roy Rogers and Dale Evans as personal friends.

Despite that colorful background, Sigman, 71, speaks about the transportation museum’s future in the down to earth terms of a career business executive — which he used to be.

Although the museum’s prize possession — the Norfolk & Western J Class steam engine — will always be a “legacy icon,” as Sigman put it, “We are not the ‘611 Museum.’” Restoring the 611 locomotive to working order and using it to pull excursions was the right move for VMT five years ago, he said.

A change to Amtrak policy in 2018 brought special train excursions to a halt nationwide, including those pulled by the 611. Sigman, who started the job in May, said he’s been researching the items in VMT’s collection with an eye toward wowing visitors with powerful, important stories.

“It’s clear that in the last five years the narrative in the story has been on the 611,” he said. The museum has additional narratives to offer, he said. For example, the museum possesses an electric locomotive and a Studebaker designed by the great 20th century industrial designer Raymond Loewy, and a race car driven by Floyd native Curtis Turner, known as NASCAR’s “first bad boy” and the “Babe Ruth of stock car racing.”

“We need to bring that story forward. We need it on our website, so people get engaged with it, and they need it in the museum, so they can better not only appreciate the collection items we have, but the historical context of the items, just like so many people appreciate Norfolk and Western’s legacy and history,” he said. “Whether it be aviation, or wagon wheels, or other things, we’re going to bring forward the narrative of many other things in the museum. I think it’s going to benefit the museum and certainly attract a wider, broader audience.”

He emphasized the museum will continue to pursue ways to keep the 611 in action, such as the short trips pulled by the locomotive that will take place in September and October in Strasburg, Pennsylvania.

“You don’t want to let it sit and you want to share,” he said. “Let’s look at it from a business point of view. We have a huge investment in the 611 and we have a lot of people who are engaged in the 611. On a business basis, it’s an annuity. The 611 investment, you want to really take good care of that.”

The transportation museum first appeared on Sigman’s horizon when he took a nostalgic ride on a 611 excursion in 2017 with his father-in-law, Walter Sarver, a 101-year-old World War II veteran who lives in Blacksburg. The experience led to the latest surprising turn in a career full of them.

An Ohio native with a degree in journalism, he went to work in retail after graduation, rising through corporate ranks to become a regional director of public relations and sales promotion for pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers, now Bristol-Myers Squibb, in the 1970s. Living in New York, he got in on the ground floor of the home video business in the 1980s and ended up working as an executive vice president under the umbrella of Spelling Entertainment, founded by major film and television producer Aaron Spelling.

In 1993, when Spelling purchased Republic Pictures — a storied Hollywood studio responsible for classic Westerns by Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne — Sigman became president and chief executive officer.

He made an effort to build relationships with the actors and actors’ estates whose films were in Republic’s library, leading to his friendship with husband and wife Rogers and Evans and his involvement in the Lone Pine Film Festival, a celebration of Western movies held in Lone Pine, California, where the nearby hills provided the background for many Hollywood films.

In 2012, the Museum of Western Film History, which runs the festival, was searching for a new director. Sigman said he offered to step in as a temporary director while the search continued. “It became seven years,” he joked.

Before that job ended, he and his wife, Susanne Sarver Sigman, moved to Charlottesville, where she could be closer to her father and siblings. “I was still commuting. I’d spend six to eight weeks in California, come home for two weeks, go back and forth.”

He was ready for a change when he learned the Virginia Museum of Transportation had an opening. He arranged a breakfast meeting with Bev Fitzpatrick, who retired at the end of 2017 after 11 years in the executive director job, and wrote to VMT board president Ken Lanford expressing his interest in the vacancy made when Fitzpatrick’s successor, Lisa Sphar, left after only four months.

Four candidates were considered for the job, including Sigman. His business management experience combined with a background running a similar-sized nonprofit impressed the board.

“The one thing I think he does have is a passion to see us succeed, and that came through in the talks we had with him,” Lanford said.

“I feel all my jobs have been preparing me for this to some degree, public relations and press and marketing and media,” Sigman said. “I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Get the day's top stories delivered to your inbox with our email newsletter.

Mike Allen writes the Arts & Extras column for The Roanoke Times. The beat he covers includes visual art, classical music, opera, theater, dance, literature, museums and other arts and cultural nonprofits, and things even more eclectic.

Recommended for you

Load comments