By Gordon Billheimer, ‘45, ‘04
Robert L. Breeden, born in Montgomery, W.Va., and reared in Smithers, a former Vice President of the National Geographic Society, died at his home in MacLean, Virginia on March 15, 2013. He was 87. Breeden was a graduate of WV Tech and was named the 1962 Alumnus of the Year. He received his master’s degree from the University of Missouri. He was a senior vice president for the publications and educational materials and a Trustee of the National Geographic Society Emeritus, retiring in 1991.
However, Breeden was best known when he was chosen by Melville Grosvenor, the president of the Society, to create the White House’s first official guidebook which was an idea of the First Lady Jackie Kennedy. The book, which then cost $1.00, was an immediate best seller which sold 250,000 copies within 90 days. The text had over 20 editions and raised funds for the White House Historical Society, selling millions of copies.
Breeden was preceded in death by his wife Hilda Breeden, also a graduate of WV Tech. They had a daughter Cindy Scudder and two granddaughters. Although Breeden became the president of the White House Historical Society and president of the Capitol Historical Society, he was particularly proud of being a West Virginian. While living in Smithers, attending Montgomery High School from which he graduated, he established a printing business.
Breeden loved to tell the story of being called by Denver Brown, then mayor of Montgomery and democratic chairman, who said that President Harry Truman, campaigning for another term, was having his train stop in Montgomery around 10pm the next day. In those days we had only the newspapers and radio which would not be available on such short notice.
Breeden printed two thousand handbills announcing the visit of the President, which were distributed over the Valley. David McCullough in his Biography of President Truman, told the story of a turnout of an estimated 2,000 people even at that late hour. Truman asked the photographers to turn their cameras on the large crowd, saying that they deserved the credit for coming at such a late hour. Breeden donated one of those handbills to the Truman Library.
As a preface to a book about Appalachia, published by Breeden, he paid tribute to his coal miner father and West Virginia. Breeden’s death was published by press releases from the National Geographic, the White House and Capitol Historical Societies and obituaries in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Breeden established a scholarship fund in nursing at Tech in memory of his mother Lala Breeden.
When Breeden announced his retirement in 1991 after 36 years as a writer, editor, senior executive and trustee, Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the Society, said “I can think of no one in the last quarter of the century who has contributed more to the success of this institution than Bob Breeden.”