Al Najjar
Al Najjar
President, CEO
The Clay Center
Al Najjar
The Clay Center -- 'an institution like no other'

March 7, 2017

"About a week ago," Al Najjar told Putnam Rotarians today, "they discovered seven planets that are very Earth-like. And my son said, 'So what? What's the big deal?'

"So I started telling him how curiosity drives everything in the world. And about Sir Isaac Newton, and how he came up with his famous equation of general gravitation, and how eventually that led to the Spitzer Space Telescope and the discovery of Trappist-1, a dwarf sun only 40 light years away with as many as seven habitable planets."

Considering that our own Milky Way galaxy, with more than a billion stars, is 100,000 light years across -- light traveling at 186,000 miles per second takes 100,000 years to cross it -- then the star Trappist-1 is a next-door neighbor.

With a Master's degree in physics, and agressive tours developing community museums in Shreveport and Tampa, Al Najjar took the reins as President and CEO of the Clay Center in March 2015.

"I had never been to Charleston before," he said.

Despite such frightening names in the area as Scary, and Nitro and Hurricane, he joked, "we fell in love with the Clay Center, and what it does, and what it offers -- really a unique institution, like no other in the country.

"Our kids now, playing on computers and tablets," he continued, "are getting less and less curious about the world around them.

"And that's what we really need to work on, the next generation of engineers, scientists and medical researchers.

"And that's what we're trying to do do at the Clay Center.

"You don't have to go [40 light years] away to look at the universe. You can go very close, 30 miles away, to a beautiful planetarium with a digital projection system.

"You can even look under the sea surface at a [coral] reef. We have a large format theater. The Caperton Planetarium & Theater is a great place for exploring the universe, exploring the world.

"We have a children's museum. We have a science museum. We have one of the best performance halls in the country. We have a great symphony orchestra.

"It's only the beginning. There is really nothing like the Clay Center and what it offers."

A successful capital campaign has enabled the Center to undertake an update of several museum sections.

"We have built a City for Kids," said the CEO, "for kids from two to eight. First thing they do is open an account, get a debit card, and then they can go from business to business.

"You can go to the car shop, and you learn about how to change tires. See if your air filter is clogged or not. And if you can figure out how to change it, you can get money in your debit card.

"If you go to the diner and make a healthy food selection, you get more money.

"You can buy costumes in a theater where you can dress up and put on your own play. It's a great place for inspiration, a great place for fun, for discovery -- and it's a great place for families.

"Our attendance shows substantial increase -- 130 percent. And our weekend attendance has tripled," he said.

"Our school attendance is going up, too. And not just from Kanawha and Putnam County -- from Kentucky, from Ohio -- any place within 130 miles.

"And what a wonderful testament for the community and the state to build something of this magnitude and this quality."

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