Mil­i­tary Mu­seum Pre­view

Lo­cal vet­er­ans ea­ger to see Greater Mid­dle­town mu­seum be­come re­al­ity soon

Hartford Courant - - Front Page - By Shawn R. Beals sbeals@courant.com

A mil­i­tary mu­seum is gear­ing up for its open­ing with a sneak peek in Mid­dle­town.

MID­DLE­TOWN – Box by box, as do­nated let­ters, uni­forms and other war ar­ti­facts are un­packed, the Greater Mid­dle­town Mil­i­tary Mu­seum is be­gin­ning to take shape.

As each of those trea­sured fam­ily relics is cat­a­logued and added to the new mu­seum's col­lec­tion, the 15-year dream to cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tional and re­search cen­ter fo­cused on mil­i­tary his­tory is now seem­ingly inches away from re­al­ity.

Lo­cal vet­er­ans be­gan think­ing about a new way to tell their own sto­ries in the early 2000s, af­ter some­one found an Amer­i­can flag in a dump­ster.

It turned out to be the one that flew over the old city hall on Main Street for the du­ra­tion of World War II, said Ron Or­ganek, the mu­seum's pres­i­dent and one of the founders.

“I was the one who opened my big mouth and said we ought to have a mu­seum, so they said, ‘OK, Ron, you're the pres­i­dent,'” Or­ganek said. “It was a long un­der­tak­ing with a lot of peo­ple that did a fan­tas­tic job to get us go­ing.”

Many of the vol­un­teers in­volved in the am­bi­tious plan to open a mu­seum from scratch are Viet­nam-era vet­er­ans. More than a few of them served in com­bat. They said the cold, of­ten-hos­tile re­cep­tion for troops re­turn­ing home sticks in their minds.

Af­ter risk­ing death and see­ing fel­low troops die by the thou­sands, they couldn't even be proud to wear their uni­forms when back on friendly soil.

Their tire­less work to pre­serve the proud

ser­vice records of Mid­dle­town vet­er­ans is a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to cor­rect the bit­ter dis­con­nect be­tween an un­pop­u­lar war and the du­ti­ful ser­vice of the coun­try’s ser­vice mem­bers.

“We were see­ing a lot of stuff be­ing thrown in the land­fill,” Or­ganek said. “This is his­tory. It will be of in­ter­est to some peo­ple, and to some it won’t be, but we have to pre­serve it.”

There will be a chance to visit the mu­seum this week­end, although it’s not quite open yet. The mu­seum will serve cof­fee and sand­wiches fol­low­ing a lo­cal Vet­er­ans Day ser­vice on Sun­day, which marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the World War I armistice.

The open house, from noon to 1:30 p.m., is a chance to show­case the mu­seum for the first time and share its goals with peo­ple out­side the lo­cal vet­eran com­mu­nity. Gath­er­ing sup­port­ers is a cru­cial part of the cen­ter’s long-term sur­vival.

There’s no en­dow­ment to speak of and no big-name foun­da­tion to guide the group. About $950,000 from the com­mon coun­cil and the State Bond Com­mis­sion paid for con­struc­tion. The col­lec­tion is en- tirely do­nated from peo­ple who want to pre­serve their fam­ily his­to­ries and con­trib­ute to a new in­sti­tu­tion.

“This far sur­passes the ex­pec­ta­tion I orig­i­nally had for the mu­seum. I didn’t ex­pect the sup­port we’ve been get­ting from ev­ery­one,” Or­ganek said. “The sup­port is there. Now it’s just a mat­ter of see­ing that ev­ery­thing gets put to­gether prop­erly, and fundrais­ing.”

Coun­cil­man Robert Blan­chard, who was the chair­man of the mu­seum build­ing com­mit­tee, said the mu­seum only opened be­cause of vet­er­ans who con­tin­ued to pur­sue it year af­ter year.

“Mid­dle­town is a city that is not only rich in cul­ture but rich in his­tory,” Blan­chard said. “A lot of cit­i­zens ap­pre­ci­ate the his­tory in our city but also our vet­er­ans and their con­tri­bu­tions.”

They’ve de­vel­oped a new re­source unique to Mid­dle­town that can draw in vis­i­tors, he said.

“Not many towns in Con­necti­cut have a mu­seum ded­i­cated to vet­er­ans, or a mu­seum of any kind re­ally,” Blan­chard said. “It’s re­ally made Vet­er­ans Me­mo­rial Park a sa­cred place to honor vet­er­ans in Mid­dle­town.”

Mu­seum cu­ra­tor Ken McClel­lan, a Viet­nam com­bat vet­eran, said the group was sur­prised how many Nazi ar­ti­facts they’ve re­ceived from peo­ple whose fam­ily mem­bers grabbed them on their way home from WWII.

They won’t shy away from the story of evil the Nazi mem­o­ra­bilia tells, he said.

“It’s go­ing to be dis­played. But it’s go­ing to be dis­played with the whole story be­hind it, not in a way that glo­ri­fies it,” McClel­lan said. “We do want to tell the story, oth­er­wise how will peo­ple re­mem­ber what it meant?”

As each bag and box is un­packed, McClel­lan can’t help but mar­vel at the pre­cious items peo­ple have en­trusted to the mu­seum.

“I love get­ting th­ese kind of trunks. Some of them haven’t been opened in 70 years,” he said, open­ing a box filled with let­ters, pho­to­graphs and other ar­ti­facts buried at the bot­tom. “What we plan to do is dig­i­tize ev­ery one of th­ese let­ters so they’re avail­able to look at on­line.”

Mid­dle­sex County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety Di­rec­tor Deb­o­rah Shapiro said the painstak­ing work to cre­ate a new mu­seum should be com­mended.

The Greater Mid­dle­town Mil­i­tary Mu­seum will com­ple­ment the lo­cally fo­cused his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety col­lec­tion, she said. Though the mil­i­tary mu­seum is also cel­e­brat­ing Mid­dle­town, its mis­sion uses the city’s vet­er­ans to tell a na­tional story.

BRAD HOR­RI­GAN/HART­FORD COURANT

Greater Mid­dle­town Mil­i­tary Mu­seum cu­ra­tor Ken McClel­lan un­packs and cat­a­logues a World War I-era ser­vice ros­ter from the Mid­dle­town Coun­cil of the Knights of Colum­bus. Th­ese and other do­na­tions need to be ex­am­ined and cat­a­logued by McClel­lan.

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