Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Gettysburg, for a historian - I mean, where else would you want to be?"

Latschar Up For New Challenge, Erin James, Evening Sun, Novemer 15, 2008.

Just days before leaving home to fight a war in Vietnam, John Latschar was pulled aside by the pastor presiding over his wedding ceremony. Expecting a heartfellt farewell, Latschar got something much different. His pastor asked him how it felt to know he would be killing women and babies. It's a story Latschar tells to illustrate the attitude of a nation toward its soldiers fighting an unpopular war. But it also represents a significant moment in the life of a man whose passion for history guided him to more battlefields - and more battles.

A young man just out of college, Latschar left that week for Vietnam as an intelligence officer already knowing the struggle he would face abroad and when he returned home. He spent a year in Vietnam, from 1972 to 1973, trying to survive. The Vietnamese officer he was assigned to advise had already spent 18 years fighting a war, long before the United States entered the conflict. "He advised me a whole lot more than I advised him," Latschar said. When he returned to the United States, the reception he received was again far from supportive.

"American citizens have now learned how to separate the soldiers from the government that sent them over there," Latschar said. "We hadn't learned that in Vietnam." Now 61, John Latschar was a man not unfamiliar with adversity when he assumed the role of superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park in 1994. His experience in Vietnam and subsequent years in the Army Reserves ultimately was valuable not only for the knowledge of military tactics he brought to this Civil War battlefield. It prepared him, in a sense, for the firestorm of controversy that erupted nearly every time he made a major policy decision. Latschar said he never planned to spend a year fighting a war in Vietnam or overseeing one of the world's most famous battlefield parks. In fact, his career as an historian was born only after finding his niche at Kansas State University.

But it is because of his experience as a military officer and his love of history that Latschar arrived in Gettysburg 14 years ago. The National Park Service recruited him for the job specifically because of that background. "Since the day I walked in here, I felt like I was a round peg in a round hole," Latschar said. His recent announcement that he will leave his post as superintendent to take a job as president of the Gettysburg Foundation opens a new chapter in John Latschar's storied life. Serving as president of a non-profit like the foundation is another challenge for which Latschar said he had never planned. But this is the right time for a change, he said. "A lot of what I wanted to do when I came to Gettysburg is either accomplished or well on the way," Latschar said. "Maybe it's time for somebody else's vision."

John Latschar was born in Kansas in a household without a television. For his future as a history buff, Latschar "blames" his parents. "We were raised as readers," he said. But Latschar enrolled at Kansas State University with intentions of leaving with an unlikely degree. "I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer," he said. Latschar said he came to realize "how much math and science and long afternoon chemical labs were involved in that degree." Not to mention he is color blind and could not tell when his labs were successes or failures. But one accidental enrollment in an advanced history class changed all that.

"I said 'Hot damn, all you have to do to succeed in history is read. This is for me,'" he said. After graduation, Latschar joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. The country was still drafting young men to fight in Vietnam, and Latschar said he figured it would be best to go as an officer. With a degree in history, Latschar entered a Vietnamese language school to serve in the military intelligence branch. His year abroad is something Latschar said is difficult to explain in brief. He laughs when asked. "How do you explain Vietnam?" he said. Upon arrival, Latschar said he and his colleagues soon realized the war was "unwinnable." Survival was the primary objective, he said. Latschar entered graduate school upon his return to the States. But the war's unpopularity continued to plague his academic pursuits. "It took a while for the other graduate students to accept me," he said. He earned a master's degree in history from Kansas State University and went on to Rutgers University for his doctorate in 1978. All the while, he was married with two kids. Latschar's career path took him to Denver, where he accepted a position as a research historian for the National Park Service - a job Latschar said "is exactly what it sounds like."

His years in Denver gave Latschar an opportunity to work on projects for parks throughout the western United States. He said it was good training for future challenges. His ambition to be a park superintendent also was born in Denver. "I always looked at that person with a touch of envy," he said. Then, in 1988, Latschar was urged to apply for the superintendent's position at the newly created Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa. He spent six years in Scranton before a new opportunity presented itself. 'Where else would you want to be?' In 1994, war made another significant impact on Latschar's life. His military background was one of the main reasons the National Park Service recruited him to apply for a position as superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park. When he got the job, Latschar said he "knew instantly that this was it." "Gettysburg, for a historian - I mean, where else would you want to be?" he said. He jokes that the first thing he did in Gettysburg was "look for a place to park," but Latschar said the projects he undertook during his tenure as superintendent were in fact conceived just hours after his arrival. Per tradition, a guide gave the new superintendent a tour of the battlefield.

"He had to show me historic photographs because I couldn't see the ground," he said. "You know where that's headed. I knew we had to do something." Latschar immediately took issue with the way the battlefield had changed since the 1863 battle. His proposal to rehabilitate the landscape to its appearance 145 years ago came just months later. By January 1995, the new superintendent had developed the primary goals of what later became the park's general-management plan and the policies that will define his legacy. First, he wanted to save the vast collection of artifacts in danger of deteriorating at the park's old visitor center. Second, Latschar identified a need to restore the Cyclorama painting that depicts Pickett's Charge. Third, Latschar decided to restore the 6,000 acres of Gettysburg battlefield to its 1863 appearance. To do that, trees, telephone poles and buildings would all have to come down. And finally, he wanted to build a new museum and visitor center, one that provides visitors with an understanding of the battle, its causes and consequences.

That's when Latschar was in for the second major fight of his life. One of the first decisions Latschar made as superintendent was to make park roads one-way for traffic. The change was safer for pedestrians and preserved the battlefield by allowing cars to park on one side of the road, he said. It was also a "very, very unpopular" decision among the local community and foreshadowed things to come. When plans to abandon the museum and visitor center on Taneytown Road and relocate the facility to a more isolated spot off of Baltimore Pike were in the works, the Gettysburg business community all but revolted. Steinwehr Avenue business owners worried the move would mean a loss of business downtown. Some of that has proven true. Others, including members of Congress, objected to the park's general-management plan for a range of reasons - one of which was a lack of consulting with the local community before major decisions were made. Latschar concedes that mistakes were indeed made. Looking back, Latschar said he now realizes compromise is often the way to go. But in later years, some of his most vocal opponents have become his strongest allies, he said. "We have both learned that there's middle ground we can meet on," Latschar said.

One is Dick Peterson, who now serves as the Gettysburg Borough Council president but was a Steinwehr Avenue business owner when the park was developing its plan to move the visitor center. Peterson strongly objected to the plan but now calls Latschar a "good friend." Since those days, Peterson said, the whole community has learned the value of cooperation. "I really credit John Latschar for being a part of that," he said. Latschar said he realizes detractors are still out there, however. "There's a few who are never going to approve of what I do," he said. "I can't do anything about that." Every decision Latschar said he has had to make required him to balance the needs of three constituencies - the locals, the academics and the visitors. Vocal as the first two may be at times, Latschar said the visitors - whom he said he call the "silent majority" - usually win out. It's the family of four from Kansas who are visiting Gettysburg for the first time that Latschar said has to matter most. "You only get one chance to reach them," he said.

For all the criticism Latschar has taken for his policy decisions, the praise is just as forthcoming. His two major accomplishments - the rehabilitation of the battlefield to its 1863 appearance and the construction of a new state-of-the-art museum - widely have been hailed by the Civil War academic community. Well-known Civil War historian James McPherson called Latschar "one of the best superintendents in the whole National Park Service" and credited him with being the leading force of the battlefield restoration. "I give a lot of tours of Gettysburg to various groups, and it makes it so much easier to explain the tactics and the maneuvers of the battle," McPherson said. He said Latschar is a man with a sense of humor and a "thick skin." "He's been chewed out by real professionals, so all the abuse he's taken in Gettysburg has just been water off his back," McPherson said. Local historian Dean Schultz credited Latschar with having the guts to take on the potentially controversial restoration project.

"Before Latschar became involved, your prior administrations were very reluctant to be able to make these changes," he said. Schultz also praised Latschar's ability to secure funding for the park. "You had to be able to know what you're doing. He was very good at that," Schultz said. "He was able to get additional monies to do this work." Gordon Jones, an historian serving on Gettysburg's Museum Advisory Committee, also lauded Latschar's work to show visitors how the land looked during the battle. "He's really impressed me with his emphasis on that," said Jones, who is the military historian at the Atlanta History Center. Jones credited Latschar with spearheading efforts to build a new museum for Gettysburg through a public-private partnership between the park and the non-profit Gettysburg Foundation - where he will now serve as president. "This is the new model for the National Park Service," Jones said. "This shows everybody how it will be done, how it should be done."

When he steps down in March from his role as superintendent, Latschar said he'll most miss the green Park Service uniform. "I am so used to it that I'm not sure how I'm going to feel when it comes off," he said. As president of the Gettysburg Foundation, Latschar will be responsible for overseeing operations at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center that he helped create. Latschar said he was fortunate to get the support of the director of the National Park Service when he proposed a public-private partnership to fund a new center. After all, there was little money to be made from the not-for-profit endeavor.

"We had no idea if we'd get any response," Latschar said. "The only thing the Park Service was offering was the opportunity to make a difference." But six proposals did come in, and the park chose York developer Bob Kinsley's. Kinsley, as chairman of the foundation's board of directors, is now Latschar's new boss. Latschar said he had never expected to be offered the job after current President Robert Wilburn's decision to step down. Fundraising, by law, is not the job of a federal employee. But Latschar said he does have experience with appealing to potential donors' passion for history. Explaining the significance of Gettysburg is something Latschar says he can do forever. As for his own mark on history, that's one subject Latschar won't touch. "I don't get to choose my legacy," he said. "That's for other people to decide."

Contact Erin James at

Text and First Two Image Source: Evening

Third Image Source: Gettysburg National Military Park

Fourth Image Source:

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