Military Museum Preview
Local veterans eager to see Greater Middletown museum become reality soon
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.
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.