Doug Foard, executive director of the Loudoun Museum, said he was fired Jan. 30 when he asked for a leave of absence to care for his critically ill wife, Jan, who has terminal cancer.
"I was dismissed," he said in a telephone interview from his home.
Steve Stipek, president of the museum's board, said that Foard, 62, resigned.
The controversy has jeopardized a long-term lease with the Town of Leesburg for three historic buildings the museum occupies at 16 Loudoun St., according to Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd. The lease was expected to be finalized this week.
Stipek said that the board granted Foard his requested leave but that Foard "indicated he was planning on resigning." The full board met Feb. 12 and voted to offer him a severance package if he did resign, Stipek said. He said the board was waiting for Foard to send a letter confirming his resignation.
Foard said that when he asked for the leave at the January meeting, Stipek said, "Why don't we make it permanent?" Foard said he was stunned and responded sarcastically, "Right!"
Foard said board member Art Richmond then told him not to take any museum assets when he left. "I said, 'Right!' again, left the room, got my keys and handed them to Larry," Foard said. "Then I walked out the door."
Richmond was away from his office Friday and did not respond to messages left Thursday and Friday on his answering service.
Stipek said he did not recall anyone telling Foard not to take anything belonging to the museum. As to other parts of the exchange, he said he was "not comfortable answering [because] it is a personnel matter."
Foard said a third member of the board's executive committee, Karen Jones, also attended the January meeting. She said Friday that it was not appropriate for her to respond to questions dealing with personnel matters.
Foard said he drafted a letter of resignation in December because of an anticipated budget shortfall that could mean either he or the museum staff would have to go. "You can't run a museum without staff," he said.
He said he put the draft on his desk with other papers and planned to review it if he felt compelled to resign because of funding problems. In January, he noticed that his papers had been rearranged as though someone had gone through them, he said. Then came the meeting Jan. 30 that Stipek said he and other executive board members had called without informing Foard of its purpose.
Acting museum director Marybeth Mohr, whom Foard hired last year as an administrator and a spokeswoman, said there were rising tensions between Foard and the board. "It regarded the involvement of the board in day-to-day operations," she said. She said that Foard felt there was too much involvement but that, from her perspective, it was a comfortable mix.
Mohr said the duties of the board and the director are not defined in the museum's bylaws.
Citing the confidentiality of personnel issues, Stipek declined to discuss how he or the board felt about Foard's management style or choice of programs.
Foard organized a day-long forum last month on the Emancipation Proclamation with four Civil War experts as speakers. He also arranged a conference for Thursday at the Loudoun County campus of George Washington University on the leadership styles of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Foard said he gave up a six-figure income as executive director of the 500,000 member Phi Beta Kappa Society in Washington 18 months ago to accept the museum position at an annual salary of $42,000. He said he took the museum post to be closer to home and to see the proposed $5 million addition to the museum completed.
"I'd love to do that," he said of the addition. "It was very seductive. I saw it as a grand way to end my career."
Foard said that when he took the job, the board assured him that the members would help with fundraising but that had not happened.
Stipek said fundraising can't begin until the museum negotiates a new long-term lease with the Town of Leesburg for the rental space.
Umstattd said Foard appealed to the Town Council about a year ago for a lease as long as 40 years so the museum could assure donors of the institution's stability at that site. The mayor said that the lease probably would have been for 20 years but that Foard's proposal was well received.
"In large part, the council had confidence in the museum's ability to raise funds and continuing success because of Doug Foard," she said. "He impressed everyone with both his credentials and his enthusiasm as well as his commitment to engage the community in the fundraising effort."
She said Town Attorney William Donnelly is reconsidering the terms of the lease. Any lease offered now, she said, would have a number of "markers" written into it -- various dates by which the museum must accomplish a level of fundraising.