National Infantry Museum celebrates its sweet victory as America’s best

Museum celebrates being named best with "Victory is SWEET" party

The National Infantry Museum celebrated with cake, patriotic music and more Friday morning after being voted as the Best Free Museum in America in a recently completed USA Today Readers' Choice Awards contest.
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The National Infantry Museum celebrated with cake, patriotic music and more Friday morning after being voted as the Best Free Museum in America in a recently completed USA Today Readers' Choice Awards contest.

There was an oh so sweet celebration in Columbus on Friday, with the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center taking a few moments to thank its many fans for voting it the “Best Free Museum” in the nation during a USA Today Readers’ Choice competition.

A patriotic drumbeat by the Spencer High School Marching Band heralded the “victory is sweet” occasion just in front of the 190,000-square-museum’s huge statue of an infantryman leading a charge. A couple of hundred people, including families of freshly graduated Army recruits, were watching the festivities unfold.

Brig. Gen. Pete Jones, commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, led things off by asking everyone how it felt to be tops out of 20 world-class museums across the nation that took part in the contest.

“What a phenomenal distinction for this museum to be rated No. 1, and I’m sure there are some folks in Cleveland who are not too happy about that,” the general said, referring to the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, which finished second after a month of back-and-forth balloting that ended Aug. 29. The Top 10 “Best Free Museum” list was announced a week ago.

Jones said the museum, which opened in June 2009 at a cost of $110 million, is a product of the vision of the city, great infantrymen and support from the local community. He said the facility’s legacy isn’t its price tag or the 30,000-plus artifacts it holds.

“It’s the legacy that you see every day of these young soldiers and their families who walk in here, to walk the ‘Last 100 Yards,’ which is owned by the Infantry, and become part of that heritage,” he said, referring to the signature piece of the museum, an ascending walkway of lifelike soldiers in battle scenes, called “The Last 100 Yards.”

(More: National Infantry Museum in Columbus is the No. 1 ‘Best Free Museum’ in America)

Stepping to the podium, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson paused to recognize former Columbus Mayor Bob Poydasheff, who was in office during the planning stages of the museum. The massive project was headed by retired Army Maj. Gen. Jerry White, a former Fort Benning commander.

“What’s so beautiful about Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Benning is that partnership where we really do revel in the exceptionalism of private citizens who come together to honor and celebrate our military men and women who go forward to fight the fight, wherever it might be, and to preserve the foundation that this nation is based on,” said Tomlinson, pointing out the museum and its mission ultimately is about those who have been in the trenches over the military’s 240-year history.

“They may have passed, but we’ll never forget them,” she said. “That’s what this museum stands for — these brave men and women who serve here today and fight these battles and future battles we can’t even conceive of. This museum will be here to celebrate them when it is done.”

That sentiment was echoed by National Infantry Museum Foundation Chairman and CEO Carmen Cavezza, also a former Fort Benning commanding general and former Columbus city manager.

“If you want a shot of patriotism. If you want to feel good about being an American. If you really want to appreciate the sacrifices and the strength and courage of the American soldier, come here and look at it. You’ll see it. It is a live, moving thing,” he said of the museum, which has a constant flow of soldiers, veterans and military retirees among its more than 300,000 annual visitors.

Cavezza expressed gratitude to all who voted for the museum in the USA Today online competition, noting the support received from all corners of the U.S. The facility’s staff hopes to use the honor to generate momentum for paying off nearly $9 million in construction debt still on the books.

“All over the country we are gaining notoriety because of your support,” he said, stressing the facility is not owned by the staff who run it. Instead, he said, it is the people who support and visit and nurture it who are the true owners. They should always refer to it as “my” or “our” National Infantry Museum, Cavezza said.

Afterward, with the celebration cakes being cut and enjoyed, Staff Sgt. Jared Gilmore, among a group of Fort Benning drill sergeants escorting basic training recruits at the museum, said he has always been impressed by the facility because it details the colorful and long lineage of the Infantry.

“I just think it’s a really neat experience, especially for people who don’t know what the Infantry is, to come in here and get an idea of what we’ve been through and what we might go through in the future,” said Gilmore, acknowledging it takes a moment for recruits first visiting the facility to grasp its meaning.

“Some of these guys, when they first sign up, they have an inkling of what the Infantry is and what it means to be an infantryman and a soldier,” the Louisiana native said. “But then they come here and look at all of the exhibits and it really starts to kick in. It’s like ‘Oh, OK, this is what I signed up for. This is the shoes I have to fill.’”

Of course, the glue for virtually all museums comes in the form of non-paid volunteers who donate their time regularly to assist visitors with their experience. Among those at the National Infantry Museum is Delores Ortiz, who has been volunteering there since its opening and enjoys “everything” about it, including its many exhibits and the people.

“I like to see the soldiers when they come, and their family members,” she said. “I save their coats and packages, and store their water bottles” while they visit.

Peter Sauer, an Army retiree who is a paid volunteer coordinator at the museum, said there are about 100 people donating their time routinely at the facility. Some are connected to the military, while others have no connection but want to be part of a best-in-class museum. It would be difficult to operate without their help, he said, considering what it would cost to pay people.

“The rule of thumb nationwide that (employment experts) use for the cost per hour of a volunteer — this is an average of pay and benefits — they calculate $23 an hour,” he said. “Just estimating the amount that our volunteers have worked since we opened, at $10 an hour, they have saved us over $1 million easily.”