In 1981, Mr. Withuhn helped prepare the Smithsonian’s 1831 John Bull locomotive, the oldest self-propelled vehicle in North America, for a short run in Georgetown.
William Withuhn in the 1980s
After becoming the history museum’s transportation curator in 1983, Mr. Withuhn sought to show how the country’s development, and even its spirit of restless adventure, was intertwined with various modes of transport.He oversaw more than 20 major exhibitions and was instrumental in developing a 26,000-square-foot permanent transportation exhibit, “America on the Move,” which opened in 2003. It was the largest single exhibit undertaken by any Smithsonian museum, up to that time.In addition to locomotives, complete with the sounds of their whistles, the exhibit included a patch of pavement from Route 66, the westward-leading highway, streetcars, a school bus, a 1940s hot rod, motorcycles and cars of various vintages.Mr. Withuhn helped coordinate the installation of all these vehicles, often requiring elaborate hydraulic lifts, winches and vast amounts of patience.“I call them iron sculptures in an industrial garden,” he said in 2000.
In addition to his curatorial duties, he also raised more than $30 million for “America on the Move” and other Smithsonian endeavors.
William Lawrence Withuhn was born Aug. 12, 1941, in Portland, Ore., and grew up mostly in Modesto. His father was an accountant.
At the University of California at Berkeley, he was cadet commander of the ROTC unit. After graduating in 1963, he joined the Air Force but learned that, at 6-foot-4, he was too tall to become a pilot.There were no height restrictions for navigators, however, and Mr. Withuhn expected to become a navigator on transport planes. During the Vietnam War, he was assigned to a gunship and participated in more than 200 missions, most of them at night. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Bronze Star. He left the Air Force in 1972 as a captain and later served in the Air Force Reserve.In the mid-1970s, he was on the staff of U.S. Rep. James F. Hastings (R-N.Y.) and worked on the Regional Rail Reorganization Act. Mr. Withuhn also attended graduate school at Cornell University in the 1970s, receiving two master’s degrees, one in business administration and another in history.He was acting director of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s before joining the Smithsonian.(This post by Matt Schudel was originally published by The Washington Post, August 12, 2017.)