Thursday, January 24, 2008

Jan. 23 - In Memoriam: Richard Gillson - Seagrove Pottery Festival founder and organizer

(Note: This has been a very highly-read page in my blog and in no way endorses the Sanford Pottery Festival or the producer of that event.)

Somewhere between the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Richard Gillson, Anna and Terry King, Julia and Phil Morgan, Peggy McKenzie, former general manager of the Days Inn and I worked closely to promote Randolph County attractions. We were just a bunch of volunteers who had an eye for tourism marketing. Long before my 1986 arrival at the NC Zoo, Richard had been working with bus companies to bring in groups. Richard, the Kings and Morgans understood the value of the tourism dollar. At the time, few others did. They promoted Seagrove potters by working with travel writers, group leaders, regional convention and visitors bureaus (Randolph County didn’t have one at the time), major magazine writers/editors and the list goes on.

He also understood the value of good photography. I recall a photo shoot with Bill Russ, the photographer for the NC Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. The Division had no images of the Seagrove area and Richard helped me set up shots at various potters’ shops. Some of the shots Bill took that day are still used by publications, tourism offices, newspapers, ad agencies and the list goes on. Richard helped make that happen.

Richard also helped the Greensboro Area Convention and Visitors Bureau with a story for Southern Living Magazine. Writer Joe Rada and photographer Art Meripold spent two days interviewing and shooting in Seagrove. That day, Richard gave me a porcelain ball that came out of the ball mill from the old Cole’s Pottery. I keep it in my kitchen window.

I recall that for several years, Peggy and I set up three booths at the Southern Women’s Show in Charlotte. We promoted visiting the NC Zoo, staying at the Days Inn and buying pottery. The best hook we had was to actually sell pots from our booth – with no markup. It was important for buyers to get a sense of what the real pottery prices were like in Seagrove. Few people in Charlotte had a clue what Seagrove was – let alone where it was located. We were introducing it to thousands for the first time. We had to be honest.

Each day, we would take an inventory of what pieces had sold from which potter – and we had pots from all of them that would work with us. We would call Richard, who drove around each afternoon to get replacement pieces that he brought to us in Charlotte. The next day, we had full shelves again. He didn’t make a penny doing this. He did it to promote the Seagrove potters.

Throughout this time, Richard was a member of the NC Association of Festivals & Events. A former board member, he participated in the annual Barbecue Festival in Lexington for many years, making the commemorative pig or pottery piece. A strong advocate for producing solid, revenue-producing festivals, Richard worked closely to elevate awareness of the Association so other event planners would have a forum to network and learn. He understood the basic fundamentals of producing the highly-attended Seagrove Pottery Festival. Many potters today comment that the dollars they made from that event kept them afloat.

In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with him to handle the public relations for the event. He had a clear understanding of how the media works – deadlines, visuals, time and space. He loved watching the Festival come together and eagerly wanted to see it continue and grow. He liked making the Festival interesting, educational, fun and profitable. Richard will be missed.

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