‘Honor them with your presence’: A look into the past, future of Soldiers & Sailors

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Soldiers & Sailors is a war museum home to more than 10,000 donated artifacts from western Pennsylvanian soldiers who served from the Civil War to the Iraq War.

By Colm Slevin, Staff Writer

John McCabe has a special tie to Oakland’s Soldiers & Sailors Museum — his photograph is one of about one thousand items on display. The photo features him during his time as a military police officer in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War.

“It’s actually me in a photograph,” McCabe, the president of Soldiers & Sailors, said. “I’m working and I have a dog latched onto my arm, because I have protection on and I’m fighting with him.”

McCabe said the museum — which is operated by the nonprofit Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum Trust, Inc. — was leased from Allegheny County in 2000. The artifacts are all owned by the corporation.

“It’s a huge building. It’s an old building, and it needs a lot of TLC,” McCabe said. “So, the leadership at the time recognized the need for funding, and the county recognized the fact that it couldn’t find it the way that it should be to maintain it, the way that it should be, to make the improvements to it.”

Soldiers & Sailors has started to make noticeable changes since then. Tim Neff — the vice president of Soldiers & Sailors, and a Pitt alumnus who graduated in 2000 — said one of the largest changes he’s seen is that the museum is more welcoming to students and the public.

“When I was at Pitt as a history major, this building right here on the middle of campus, nobody went into it, they had keep off the grass signs out front,” Neff said. “That all changed once the trust took over. We wanted people to come in, and one of the first things we did was invite Pitt students to use our front lawn just to show that there was life here.”

Part of this initiative is giving the lawn outside the museum, where students often sit during the warmer parts of the year, a major face-lift. McCabe said this project, which has been in the works since 2009, includes adding a statue called “America’s Defenders.” Its purpose is to honor current soldiers and veterans from the past two decades. McCabe said adding this statue to the lawn is where the idea of updating the entire lawn came from.

“It’s in honor of our current generation of veterans fighting the war on terrorism,” McCabe said. “It would be reflective of their uniform and soldiers that are in Afghanistan and in Iraq or that have been for the last 20 years. That statue was actually in the process of being sculpted and turned into a bronze statue.”

McCabe said the lawn update will also include adding new ramps into the front doors to make the building more accessible. Currently the museum isn’t handicap accessible.

“We’ll have ramps that lead into the front doors so literally anybody can get in and access it like you should be able to,” McCabe said. “Because of the age of the building we haven’t been required to to maintain it or make improvements for ADA requirements.”

Selina Jin, an undecided first-year, said she enjoys sitting with her friends on the lawn when the weather is nice. Jin said she went to a STEM event at Soldiers & Sailors, and that was where she first saw the campus.

“In 2019 I went to a STEM camp at Soldiers & Sailors,” Jin said. “It was a really beautiful museum, and I loved the campus. Many of my fond memories are of sitting on the lawn and just hanging out with friends or just eating together before it got too cold.”

But it’s what’s inside the museum that makes it stand out. Soldiers & Sailors has over 10,000 donated artifacts, including seven medals of honor on display from western Pa. soldiers. Of these 10,000, about 1,000 are on display to the public. Neff said these medals — the highest and most prestigious military decoration — are a rare sight.

“They are truly a national treasure,” Neff said. “You know, you can go your whole life and not see a single Medal of Honor, and we have seven in our collection ranging in Civil War through the Vietnam War.”

Neff added that one of the bright sides of the COVID-19 pandemic is that Lisa Petitta, the museum’s collections manager, has had time to create an online artifacts catalog. They’ve also begun to create a virtual tour of the museum which will be posted on their website.

Notable figures like Nelson Mandela, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama have enjoyed the inside of the hall as well, according to McCabe. A part of Soldiers & Sailors’ history is highlighted by the events they host such as weddings, banquets and University events. This also makes up about a third of the corporation’s revenue.

“The majority of times it’s because we have individuals like Obama or Trump that are pursuing their initiatives and they’re campaigning and they’re reaching out into the cities, looking for places to hold their gatherings, and we’re often on that shortlist,” McCabe said. “So that’s very significant for us because that’s good revenue for us also.”

Soldiers & Sailors isn’t just trying to attract high-profile figures, though. McCabe said to attract more students after Nordenberg Hall was built, the museum started an annual tradition of showing the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” which was partially filmed in the museum, to first-year students in October. While the museum did not show the movie this year because of COVID-19, McCabe said he hopes next year to open it to first-years and sophomores. 

Like the movie night, Soldiers & Sailors hasn’t been able to host many of their normal fundraisers in-person, including for Memorial Day. Instead, Neff said they held a virtual ceremony with a color guard and asked the public to send in videos of them speaking about the importance of their service.

The corporation also had to switch up their Veteran’s Day celebrations in November due to the pandemic. The museum asked people to donate money in honor of a veteran and the museum would place a flag in their honor with the goal of filling the lawn. While this was the first year they filled the lawn with flags, Neff said the corporation hopes to make it a tradition.

“We never dreamed it would get as big as it was,” Neff said. “Which is encouraging and speaks to this region’s love of their veterans, and … it was really heartwarming and then that Veterans Day evening with, we had luminaries with the building all lit up.”

Filling the lawn was not only a successful fundraiser for Soldiers & Sailors — according to McCabe, it was also a highly impactful fundraiser. 

“One of the most simple programs, but yet one of the most memorable and visible and impressive,” McCabe said. “Nov. 1. we put the flags we had gotten already out there — and it was maybe 100 or 200 but they just kept coming in. By the end of the month we had just shy of 1,000 flags on the lawn.”

A previous version of this story referred to the vice president of Soldiers & Sailors as Tim Ness. His name is Tim Neff. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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