What: Chattanooga National Medal of Honor Museum fundraiser dinner
When: April 26, 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Where: Chattanooga Convention Center
Speaker: Medal of Honor recipient Col. Leo K. Thorsness (U.S. Air Force retired)
Contact: 423-877-2525 or visit www.mohm.org
In a small corner of Northgate Mall in Hixson, surrounded by uniforms, photographs and stories of men and one woman who've earned our nation's highest military honor, Jim Wade can see the museum he directs back in downtown Chattanooga.
He and dozens of supporters hope an April 26 fundraiser and other behind-the-scenes work will help make that move a reality by year's end.
The National Medal of Honor Museum of Military History opened in 1987 at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium.
"Our mission is twofold here: to honor these men who received this medal, our highest award for valor. And secondly is to educate current and future generations about these men," Wade said.
In 1991, the museum had a 20,000-square-foot home in a city building at the intersection of East Fourth Street and Georgia Avenue. It held donated Medal of Honor and military items for a dozen years before its contents were mothballed when the lease ran out and the site became the 65,000-square-foot Brabson Place office building it is today, said Patty Parks, former museum director.
Early on there were big plans for the museum.
In 1989, Hamilton County and Chattanooga split the cost of a $50,000 feasibility study for a proposed 200,000-square-foot, $50 million complex that was estimated to bring in 400,000 tourists a year who would spend $40 million annually.
One proposal would have put the museum next to the Tennessee Aquarium, according to Times Free Press archives.
East Ridge officials were lobbying to have the facility built near Interstate 75, and across the state line Georgia officials were offering another 200 acres and looking at a dedicated interstate exit.
By 1991 the proposed complex had scaled down to a 150,000-square-foot, three-story building at a cost of $13 million.
Four years later museum supporters were trying to raise $3 million to buy nearly nine acres near the foot of Lookout Mountain, then headquarters of the Double Cola Co. About that time the downtown museum had an operating budget of $70,000 and an estimated 14,000 annual visitors.
The current operating budget is $30,000 and it has an estimated 4,000 annual visitors.
Parks, a retired U.S. Navy commander, had visited the downtown museum in the 1990s while still serving in the military and decided she wanted to volunteer with the organization when she moved back to Chattanooga after retiring.
She went to her first museum board meeting in January 2004 and became the organization's director the same day.
"I've had a wonderful life, thanks to the military," Parks said. "And for our heroes to leave this stuff to this museum. I could not just walk away from it."
A handful of items were set up in the 1,000-square-foot space at Northgate Mall. But much of the museum's donated collection was in a local warehouse.
Parks; her husband, Mark Parks; and more than two dozen volunteers began poring over heaps of items gathering dust.
Much of the collection was in disarray; items were not in any sort of order or inventory and some pieces sat covered in mold, Parks said.
There were more than 100,000 pieces, including more than 700 uniforms.
The Parkses and volunteers began cleaning, organizing, cataloging and archiving the collection. Some attended museum curating training, and Parks called museum experts across the country to learn best practices for maintaining such a collection.
The group set up in the now 1,000-square-foot space at Northgate Mall. They started by putting in place a chronological display of the nation's war periods beginning with the Revolutionary War.
For the next five years, on volunteered time, people cared for the collection.
There have been calls from people in Columbus, Ga., and Knoxville who were curious if the museum would want to relocate. But Wade and other museum supporters see returning to downtown as the best way to share the Medal of Honor history of the area.
The first such medals awarded were earned here during the Civil War. There are six men with local connections who've earned the medal.
Charles H. Coolidge, a Signal Mountain resident, is one of only seven living World War II medal recipients.
The plan is modest. Wade is aiming for a 2,000-square-foot space downtown or on the North Shore. Once the museum has that foothold, the next step is an eight-year plan to move into a 10,000-square-foot space, he said.
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.