Chattanooga's Medal of Honor center leaders eye new exhibits, character development program

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Medal of Honor Heritage Center is shown on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, during the Bricks of Honor Dedication Ceremony, which also highlighted Pearl Harbor Day.

Frank Hughes has set a pretty high bar for himself and the leadership team at Chattanooga's Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center.

The retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel took over last month as the center's board chair. Prior to that, as vice chair, he led the $6.25 million capital campaign that resulted in the center's design and construction.

"The Heritage Center being open, period, was an unexpected outcome," said Hughes, an executive vice president for SmartFinancial, the parent company of Knoxville-based SmartBank. "Most everyone thought we'd fail, but we got it open on time and on budget.

"When you put military on a mission, things get done," he said. "I would hope we'd continue to execute as well in the future."

Alongside Hughes on the center's board are vice chair Linda Moss Mines, who serves as historian for Chattanooga and Hamilton County; interim executive director David Currey, who designed the center, and immediate past chair Noah Long, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral. The board also welcomed Chattanooga Bar Association executive director Lynda Minks Hood in November as well.

Hughes said one of his objectives is enhancing the center's visitor experience with new exhibits, content and programming.

"I remember museums when I was a kid," he said. "Very few got you really involved. We have exhibits that spark thought, that get people to understand the price people have paid to achieve our freedom.

"Take Desmond Doss - he had tuberculosis when he came back from Okinawa. He didn't see his child until [the child] was 7. Talk about a sacrifice," he said.

But Hughes said his top priority is reintroducing the Medal of Honor Character Development Program to area students.

"It was developed by the Medal of Honor Society, which is made up of Medal of Honor recipients, and it's based on six character traits - citizenship, commitment, courage, integrity, patriotism and sacrifice," he said.

"It has nothing to do with politics," Hughes added. "It's basically leadership training, based on how to make good life decisions."

Looming over the missions of the center's leadership is the global pandemic, which is heading into its third year with fresh momentum in the form of the new omicron variant. Hughes expressed optimism that the center will be able to weather what's ahead.

"Many of us have been vaccinated now," he said, "so the environment might not be quite as risky."

Currey, who left the center's board in October to step in as interim executive director, recalled that, barely a month after the center's February 2020 opening, the pandemic forced it to close until Memorial Day.

"About two months," he said, adding that the center is seeing about 25% of its anticipated visitor traffic.

"A museum's first year is its biggest year," he said. "It's new. Everybody wants to see what you've got. Our growth was stunted, but we were able to keep the doors open, with full staffing, thanks to a lot of generous donors and PPP [federal Paycheck Protection Program] grants."

Currey said the center will be "literally reintroducing" itself in 2022.

"One of our big problems is that nobody knows we're here," he said. "We've got to capture attention."

To that end, Currey said, a new exhibit on Andrews' Raiders is set to debut in late January. The exhibit will honor the Union soldiers who tried to destroy railroad tracks and bridges between Chattanooga and Atlanta in 1862. Six of those men were the first Medal of Honor recipients, in March 1863.

"Chattanooga is really the birthplace of the Medal of Honor," Currey said. "That's important context for audiences to understand. We're telling not only the story of the Medal of Honor, but the stories of prominent Tennesseans who have won the Medal of Honor.

"Alvin York. Desmond Doss. Charles Coolidge. Theirs are significant stories, and they fit in the pantheon of American military history," Currey said. "After George Washington, who's more prominent than Sgt. York? He's one of the top five memorable military characters, and he's one of ours."