Retired Army colonel stepping down as head of Cantigny museum in Wheaton
Paul Herbert could not have planned a better last day at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park.
Herbert will end his tenure as executive director by giving a tour of the Wheaton museum to a group of soldiers traveling from the Army's 1st Infantry Division headquarters in Fort Riley, Kansas.
"It's the best thing I could possibly do," Herbert said.
A retired Army colonel, Herbert will step down at the end of December after more than 13 years of leading the museum dedicated to the storied "Big Red One," the Army's oldest division. In that role, Herbert was a meticulous historian who also humanized what he would call "the soldier's story."
If you happened to tour the museum with Herbert, you would hear a lively storyteller explain exactly what was at stake for both sides of a conflict. But Herbert also spoke of building empathy.
That's perhaps the biggest mark Herbert left at the museum. The building closed in 2016 for a nearly yearlong, $8.5 million project. When it reopened in time for the division's centennial, new exhibits helped visitors relate to -- and feel personal responsibility for -- the men and women behind the uniform.
"We want you to meet them, and we want you to appreciate how much we ask of them," he said at the time.
A West Point graduate who holds a doctorate in history, Herbert took the reins of the museum in 2005, starting a second career that allowed him to remain close to the Army he served for 30 years.
"The guiding ethos was to tell the soldier's story and stories properly with respect and authenticity, and then tie that story to the greater story of the United States and who we are as a society and as a country," Herbert said.
He tactfully built relationships with high-ranking military officials, veterans and Gold Star families to lend authenticity to exhibits and give personal artifacts and war souvenirs a place of honor in the museum. David Hiller, the president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the museum, noted those connections in Herbert's retirement announcement Monday.
"He's helped hundreds of veterans through the American Legion and the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans, hosted events at Cantigny, and established national and international partnerships that enhanced our reputation and extended our reach," Hiller said.
Herbert often opened the doors of the museum for ceremonies to honor war heroes. In July 2016, he gave a tearful salute to John Chrenka, a D-Day veteran who received France's Legion of Honor and died about two months later.
"A museum is about its outreach and its connections to the public," Herbert said. "And helping the visitors see themselves reflected in the story that we present and those ceremonies that honor veterans, ceremonies that invoke the past, ceremonies that recall our critical alliances with other countries like France, like Great Britain, like Canada and so many others we could name, all of that outreach is every bit as important as the experience of the visitor coming to the door."
As part of that outreach, Herbert's mission to present an up-to-date record of the division took him far beyond Cantigny's Wheaton campus.
Two years ago, Herbert met with the family of Pfc. Ross McGinnis in their home near Pittsburgh to receive their donation of the 19-year-old's Medal of Honor awarded after his death in Iraq. The medal is now displayed in "Duty First," a gallery focusing on the division's contemporary missions in the years after Vietnam.
Last year, he traveled to Iraq to meet division soldiers deployed to support Iraqi operations at the height of the campaign to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State.
Herbert officially retires Dec. 31, but he's using accumulated vacation time next month, effectively making Friday his last day. Cantigny expects to publicly announce Herbert's successor early next year.
Herbert said he will help in the transition and as a sounding board, but he won't be a familiar face at the museum once he retires.
"Those of us who have served in the military understand that when you turn over command, you need to disappear to give that person full rein to run the institution as he or she see fits," Herbert said. "And that's a strong tradition in the Army to which I will adhere."