The frequently embattled executive director of the USS Kidd resigned Wednesday.
In 2013, Alex Juan took over the Louisiana Naval War Memorial, which includes the WWII-era destroyer.
She won praise for introducing fresh programs for veterans and families but also oversaw years of lackluster fundraising and financial concerns, which forced the memorial to cancel the popular Fourth of July celebration the year after she took over.
Juan also had to work in the shadow of Maury Drummond, who made many friends in his 22 years in charge but who was found to have illegally misspent funds while ignoring insurance payments. He died last week.
Juan was under a three-year contract, which expires in December, said memorial commission chairman and former congressman Henson Moore. The board was set to vote in June whether to extend her contract, but Juan announced Wednesday that she would be resigning, effective June 10. In an interview, she was vague on her reasons for leaving, and Moore said he is unsure but noted she has mentioned leaving for several months.
Moore said he is sad to see Juan go and believes she would have had the votes to extend her contract. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that many of his colleagues on the board — perhaps even a majority — disliked changes Juan implemented or transferred their anger over the investigation of Drummond onto her. For his part, Moore said he has no reason to believe that Juan blew the whistle on her predecessor, whom she had worked for as his administrative assistant.
Part of the divide appears to center on the philosophical question of what role the memorial should play in the community. When asked which accomplishments she was proud of, Juan mentioned starting a yoga and meditation program in which veterans could participate.
“That’s not what we are,” said former commissioner David Norwood, who served on the board for 25 years and argued that the site should focus on being a tourist destination.
There was also a day when Juan invited homeless people to visit the memorial for a free haircut and “some people came unglued,” Moore said.
However, the chairman was a staunch defender of the outgoing director. The memorial needs to move forward to be relevant with modern visitors, he argued. The Kidd can’t keep relying on visits from an increasingly smaller number of veterans, especially veterans of older wars like WWII. Juan, a Louisiana Air National Guard veteran — worked to provide services to non-military families and service members who have seen action in more recent conflicts.
“We just have to find a new way. … (Juan) was always willing to try new things,” Moore said. “When you try new things, you’re gonna get criticism.”
Juan is proud of her accomplishments, especially working on a “shoestring budget.” But it isn’t all about money. She recalled that as a child, she and her brother loved military history, but her mother would have to save up to be able to take them to ships like the USS Alabama.
So in an effort to make the memorial more affordable, the site under her leadership has encouraged visitors to come free of charge on the first Sunday of each month and offered arts and crafts to appeal to families.
Nevertheless, the Kidd, which is entirely dependent on sales, donations and sponsorships, has had its share of money problems. The memorial has posted several years of low fundraising, and last year Juan said the site faced an “urgent need for money.”
Norwood criticized Juan as a poor fundraiser, but she has said that donors were spooked after finding out about her predecessor’s mismanagement. The state inspector general announced last year that Drummond spent money on restaurants and on travel for his wife, but a year before that, the Legislative Auditor said Drummond failed to pay more than $300,000 in insurance premiums.
In addition to regular operating costs, the Kidd has had to begin paying back the money it owes during Juan’s tenure. Moore said she inherited a lot of problems but that the ship has begun to turn around.
“Alex had a lot on her plate,” between the auditor, the inspector and media scrutiny, Moore said.
Juan recognized that not everyone was thrilled when she took the helm, and “people had some strong feelings” about seeing a woman in charge. Moore, who rejoined the board in 2013 said he has heard stories about “uncivil” interactions among Kidd leadership.
Moore also said that Juan has gotten abusive phone calls threatening “to beat (her) up, or worse.”
Juan said she is not leaving over the harassment.
“That is not the reason. I want to be very clear about that. … I’m not leaving because someone is harassing or threatening me.”
Juan said she has not yet determined where she will work next, though she mentioned that she would like to continue working with veterans and is considering going back to school.
Moore said the board has not yet made any decisions on who will take over at the Kidd, or how the next executive director will be chosen.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.