About two years ago, Michael Terrence Sheehan drove to Leesburg looking for Oatlands, the 19th century mansion and grounds that is a National Historic Trust property. "I couldn't find it," he said.
Now, at 43, he is the historic property's new executive director, the result of a three-month search by members of the Oatland's board of trustees, who said they were looking for someone they didn't know existed until they met Sheehan.
"He's ideal -- he's perfect. He fit every criteria we had," said Oatlands chairman B. Powell Harrison. "Not only that, he has incredible energy. I never knew anyone to ever succeed at anything without energy -- and Mike has lots of that."
Sheehan, who came to Oatlands in May, already has plans for accomplishing what he sees as his major task at the property six miles south of Leesburg: "Bringing the operation up to its next level. Oatlands has completed its adolescence and is ready to go to college."
In this case, "college" means making Oatlands, a three-story mansion on 231 rolling acres off Rte. 15, more of a cultural and educational center for the community and making it pay for itself even more than it has in the past.
"I want to make Oatlands so well known that everybody will be able to find it the first time without even asking the tourism office," he said.
According to Harrison, Sheehan has all the qualifications to do these things. He cited Sheehan's 20 years of experience in the arts and historic preservation field, his "proven ability" to manage a large staff and raise substantial amounts of money and his PhD in architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Sheehan said the events and functions already established at Oatlands' Greek-revival style mansion, the carriage house, the formal terrace gardens and the carefully tended grounds will not change.
They include "Christmas at Oatlands," when the mansion is decorated in 19th century holiday finery and is open for candlelight tours, point-to-point races in the spring, sheepdog trials in June, horse trials in September and an all-breed dog show the following month.
In addition, house and garden tours are offered every day from April through December. Not long after moving into one of the several small houses on the property, Sheehan began rolling up his sleeves for slow but steady changes at Oatlands.
"We don't have a formal program for elementary and high school students," he said. "Yet, Oatlands could be an ideal place to study Virginia history. We hope to expand the carriage house, which now holds about 50 people for meetings, to accommodate about 250.
"We want to show educational films. We want to attract more tourists by staging more special events and to attract the local person by promoting Oatlands as a community center where something is always going on. I envision classes, lectures, workshops, seminars, internships . . . something to suit every interest pertaining to Oatlands and state and local history."
All of this, of course, is going to cost money, about $1 million, Sheehan estimates. Oatlands' $450,000 annual budget is currently funded by a small endowment from the property, fees paid for house and garden tours, items purchased at the carriage house gift shop and by about 500 benefactors called Friends of Oatlands.
Sheehan would like to see the number of Friends grow to 2,500, using regular renewal applications that will require little follow-up work once the list is established.
And beginning in October, Friends of Oatlands will be offered free admission, discounts on gifts and better communication on upcoming special events. "The Friends will truly be treated like friends," said Sheehan.
Walking across the lawn, Sheehan toed the remnants of a wedding reception held last weekend -- cigarette butts and small bits of fruit.
"We also need to hire young people from high school and college to come in and help with some of the work here -- especially with the grounds," he said.
"We need more older residents, perhaps retired and interested in local history, to come and work for us as tour guides and in the gift shop. There is still so much we need."