Veterans may have to march museum to new location

Local exhibit is housed at closed middle school

Nov. 9, 2009

Menomonee Falls — Korean War veteran Bob Schmitt started talking about his service experience as a speaker in a classroom years ago.

Now he shares his stories at the veterans' artifacts museum held for a week each year at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Schmitt, who is a past commander of the local VFW post and member of 40 and 8 - another veterans organization, served 18 months in Korea.

The Korean children affected him most. Schmitt said the children had no parents, food or clothes.

"The kids suffered terribly," he said.

His display had pictures he took of the children - one of a boy with his arms raised in surrender. Other photos showed children running naked through the streets.

One photo showed two boys Schmitt tried to take care of while he was in Korea. Although he tried, Schmitt said he never found out what happened to them.

Schmitt, and other veterans like him with photos, war paraphernalia and stories, may have to find a new location for the annual event.

The School Board in May decided to close Thomas Jefferson Middle School and holding the event there wasn't ideal.

Tough to find open doors

Larry Willms, a Korean veteran who served during the Vietnam era from 1967 to 1968 as combat engineer, said there were some hitches because the event was held at Thomas Jefferson.

"People thought it was closed," he said.

Because only certain doors were unlocked, he said some people walked around the entire building before finding a way in.

North Middle School, which houses the sixth-graders who participate in the program, isn't equipped and doesn't have space for the event and museum, Superintendent Keith Marty said at recent board meeting.

However, these resilient veterans will find a way to share their stories.

"We'll do it in the street if we have to," Schmitt said. "We'll continue it if I have to rent a hall."

The local veterans' groups and school district officials do not seem to think they will have to go to those extremes to find a location for the event.

Marty said the school district wants to continue to maintain the museum, but wants to discuss possible locations with the local veterans' groups.

He said he would like to keep it close to North, possibly somewhere downtown.

"I'm not sure what the future might bring," he said.

Number of visitors grows

Schmitt said it belongs at North. He has been a part of the event for the past 12 years.

"It gets bigger every time," he said, having seen it grow from about 300 visitors to more than 2,000 and 15 to 60 tables worth of displays.

Willms, who also has been involved with the event for the past 12 years, said the museum includes artifacts from the Civil War through the Iraq War.

"I pass on my experiences to the kids and they are informed about what service is about," he said. "I made the best of wherever I was."

He said he plans to work with the school district to find a new location for the event, but is a realist. He said the continuation of the event depends on veterans being alive to participate. Willms is a past second vice president of the local VFW post, a past commander of the local American Legion post and a member of AmVet and 40 and 8.

The weeklong event concludes with a public ceremony, which the school district incorporated into the sixth-grade curriculum. Other schools, including private ones, bus students to the school to visit the museum.

"It is absolutely rewarding for all of us veterans," Schmitt said.

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