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In My Opinion

Museums can be part of the future


My enduring memory as a former staff member at the Gilmore Car Museum is the sight of a long-haired kid walking up the tree-lined entry drive, curious about all the excitement generated by high school students stepping off a school bus outside one of the facility’s outbuildings.

His scruffy jeans and tattered shirt indicated this guy wasn’t much into discipline. In fact, the reason he was walking home from school, we learned later, was because he’d been kicked off the bus. That didn’t matter back in the fall of 2009 when we launched Gilmore Garage Works, an after-school enrichment program for any high schooler interested in cars and something to do because they weren’t offered a spot on an athletic team or couldn’t beat out the lucky ones who held part-time jobs.

We accepted everybody. And today, a decade into the program, it’s my belief that the Gilmore Garage Works endeavor is the greatest contribution the Gilmore Car Museum makes to Barry County. Don’t get me wrong – before choosing to leave the museum in 2011 to become an editor at J-Ad Graphics Inc., I felt pride every day in the museum’s esteemed place in automotive history, its collection of nearly 400 vintage automobiles, and the thousands of visitors who stopped by every year to see preserved history come to life.

As part of the small group that conceived the idea of using cars and history as a community asset, though, I knew the Gilmore Garage Works program would complement the museum’s admirable preservation of the past by using its assets to prepare young people for the future.

I was pleased to read in last week’s Banner about plans unveiled at the county planning commission meeting for a new, $5 million muscle car exhibition building and an almost-double size expansion of the 14,000-square-foot Classic Car Club of America building. The intentions are another confirmation of what the Gilmore Car Museum does best: Sell memories.

Who doesn’t have a special car in their memory banks? Don’t we all have a favorite car era? I revel in the stories of August and Frederick Duesenberg who, while they were developing one of America’s most famous luxury passenger cars, were building racing engines and cars that set speed records on Daytona Beach, won the French Grand Prix in 1921 and then took the Indianapolis 500 checkered flag four times in six years from 1922 to 1927.

I remember the way Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg’s eyes lit up when I reminded him during his visit to Kalamazoo a few years ago of the black-and-pearl 1949 Mercury he wrote about in The Prince of Frogtown. “Wasn’t that the greatest car ever?” he gushed when I told him we had a near-replica in the Gilmore Car Museum collection.

Nostalgia may not be a growth business, however. I fear for the future of all museums given their static nature. History does not change, though I concede that there are always new, innovative and entertaining ways to tell it. But younger generations don’t carry the same level of nostalgia we feel, and it’s often painfully obvious that they certainly don’t have a grasp on history. I’m afraid that may be especially true of automobiles. Millennials seem less and less interested in cars, and that trend continues to diminish with the succeeding Gen-X, Y, and Z generations. Many of today’s 16-year-olds don’t even bother to get their driver’s licenses on their birthdays and they certainly can’t afford – even if they were interested – to get into the expensive vintage car hobby.

That’s the beauty of the Gilmore Garage Works program and the museum’s commitment to it. By teaching students under the guidance of adult mentors to preserve and restore valued automobiles, the museum is not only building appreciation for the craftsmanship of early car designers and builders, it’s also equipping young people with skills in welding, metal fabrication and mechanical repair that may qualify them for productive and satisfying careers. It is a museum that preserves the past and is preparing for the future.

Granted, not every Gilmore Garage Works student will find – or desire – a working career in vintage automobiles, though some will. One former student has advanced to the famed Automotive Restoration Technology Program at McPherson College in Kansas. It was that school where comedian Jay Leno – an avid automobile and motorcycle collector – established the Fred S. Duesenberg Scholarship and from where he hired a McPherson graduate to oversee his over 100-piece collection housed in a garage in Los Angeles.

Every Gilmore Garage Works graduate will learn the pride of working with the hands, though. That, to me, is an added life dimension every one of us should have. I wish I had learned how to work with my hands. My father was a plastering craftsman, and I now lovingly remember how we would enter a building and I would watch his eyes carefully study its construction. Today, the only work I do with my hands is in front of this computer keyboard.

Ed Domke, the career and technical education teacher at Hastings High School, illustrated that point for me one spring day when he visited the museum with a class equipped to do some spring cleanup on the museum grounds. I challenged Ed on CTE’s place in a high school curriculum, generally, and on the remote possibility, specifically, that any of his students on the grounds that day would go on to study turf management.

“Probably not,” Domke conceded, “but what they will have will be an appreciation for and an ability to have a garden that they may enjoy working in when they leave their job as an adult at the end of the day.”

Domke could have been referring to Matthew Crawford who said in his 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, “Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

Working – learning – with our hands becomes a pleasant escape from the mundane, it’s a pursuit into curiosity, creativity and a respite from the obligations of daily work life. It works both ways, of course. I believe that those whose careers and adult jobs involve working with the hands should find their needed and vital escapes in the arts, in literature, in music. Every high school shop class student should be required to take an introductory culture course.

And let’s get past this bias that the skilled trades are a “fallback” career decision. Academically-gifted students also should be required to take a high school shop class before they head off to college, to discover the satisfaction in working at some craft with their hands, finding a pursuit that may someday provide a needed and enjoyable escape from their real world.

In neither case do students exploring something out of their realm or comfort zone have to be good –  they just need the experience of developing another part of their brain and gaining knowledge of another important area of life. We need to light a fire of passion for something outside their main concentrations, for something that, throughout their adult life, will provide pleasure and satisfaction while renewing their commitment to the work in which they are engaged as a career.

Congratulations to the Gilmore Car Museum for the latest demonstration of its passion to bring the story of the automobile to America through the new muscle car exhibition and expansion of its classic car space. I trust the passion for its greatest asset – building the skills, careers and lifetime satisfactions in the lives of our young generations – will not be diminished.

That’s something for which there can be no price established. And it’s why the Gilmore Car Museum will always be one of Barry County’s most valued assets.


Doug VanderLaan,

Guest Columnist




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