Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An Interview with Debra Kathman, Executive Director of the Manassas Battlefield Trust

This past August I visited Manassas National Battlefield Park with my boys on the 153rd anniversary of Second Manassas. Living less than 30 minutes from the scene of the fighting, I consider Manassas my "local battlefield." I really enjoy exploring the ground on which both battles were fought. The close proximity means that if I want to focus on a specific part of First or Second Manassas -- for example, the fight on Chinn Ridge on August 30, 1862 -- I can do so with relative ease and little expense. (No offense to Harry, but I am more of a Second Manassas kind of guy!)

The day I visited in August, I had the pleasure of meeting Debra Kathman, the Executive Director of the Manassas Battlefield Trust, who was staffing a table there. I had heard of this group on social media, but knew little about their activities. Debra was nice to enough to answer a few questions for me about her organization. I think you'll find that the Trust has an ambitious and admirable agenda, and I hope readers will consider joining the group.

Q: What is the history of the Manassas Battlefield Trust?

A: The Trust was founded in 2013 through the efforts of then Park Superintendent Ed Clark (who is now the Superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park) and a core group of committed volunteers. All saw the potential for a friends group to support the Park and raise awareness and funds for projects and preservation. The group received initial support and guidance from the National Park Service, National Park Foundation, and the Civil War Trust, primarily to get the organization formed and legally up and running. The Trust was an all-volunteer effort until I was hired as the Executive Director this spring.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get interested in the Civil War and Manassas?

A. I have been fortunate to have had a varied career with jobs that have touched on many of my strengths and interests. I am a lawyer by training, and practiced law in both New York and the D.C. area for several years before moving into nonprofit and fundraising roles at several national organizations. Later, when my children were small, I decided to go back to school and pursue my interest in history. I received a Masters in History at George Mason University, and also worked as a research assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at Mason during and after my time as a student. When the job at Manassas Battlefield Trust came up, it was a perfect mix of history, fundraising and program management. While my scholarly interests lie more in legal and social history, I do have a particular interest in the 19th century, and growing up history was all around me, as my father was an avid antique dealer and collector, with a special interest in guns and weaponry. Since joining MBT I have been boning up on my Civil War history, which has been great fun.

Q. What are the Trust’s goals?

A. The Trust’s main goal is to support the Manassas National Battlefield Park in the protection and preservation of the park through education, partnerships and philanthropy. While our primary purpose is to raise money to fund park needs that are unmet by federal funding sources, we also want to make the Trust and the Park a more visible and integral part of the local community.

Q. What are your main targets for preservation and conservation?

A. We work closely with the Park Superintendent, Jon James, and his staff to determine what the priorities are for park projects, taking into account what is currently funded through their budget and what are the unmet needs that we can assist in funding. Currently, we are looking to help fund new exhibits at Stone House and Brawner Farm, as well as helping with a planned redesign of the information desk at the Visitors Center. Obviously, any of these projects are dependent on fundraising and financial support.

Q. Have you or do you plan to partner with other groups, like the Civil War Trust?

A. We are always happy to partner with other organizations on projects that would benefit the Park. Our partnership with the Civil War Trust is a great example of this. Over the last two years we worked with them on both the acquisition of the Yeates Property for the Park as well as defusing a potential problem that involved the possible building of cell towers adjacent to the Park. In the case of the cell towers, MBT and the CWT were able to negotiate a settlement that was in the best interest for all involved. We also have a member of the CWT staff act as a liaison between our two groups. In addition to the CWT, I have reached out to other Civil War and preservation related groups and have found them very collegial and easy to work with.

Q. What can you tell readers about the Trust’s involvement in replacing trees that threatened the foundation of the Stone House?

A. This was a project that was before my time at the Trust, but I know that the trees were donated to the Park and replaced trees that had to be removed due to their encroachment on the foundation of the Stone House. This was one of the first projects completed by the Trust, and gave us some nice publicity.

Q. What other projects has the Trust completed at the battlefield?

A. Other than the Yeates property and tree planting mentioned above, we recently funded the creation of three traveling trunks for use by local schools and community groups. As mentioned above, we are currently working with park staff on identifying other potential projects for funding, like additional exhibits to Stone House and Brawner Farm, assisting with the remodeling of the information desk at the Visitors Center, and new waysides where needed in the park.

Q. Has the Trust taken a position on a possible battlefield bypass that would clear US-29 of congestion through Manassas NBP?

A. The Trust’s main focus is to support the protection and preservation efforts of the Park, so to that end we don’t have an official position on the bypass.

Q. The battlefield is a tremendous educational resource. What activities do you have planned for schoolchildren?

A. I agree! My first trip to Manassas NBP was on a field trip with one of my daughters, and I think all of us at the MBT understand the value of the park to the local community. When completed, the aforementioned traveling trunks will be a great resource for local schools to use while teaching students about the Civil War. We have also arranged for a collection of Civil War related books to be donated to the brand new Haymarket Library that is set to open on October 22nd. The library will also have an exhibit of artifacts from the Park on display. There are also various activities at the park for schoolchildren, including the upcoming Saturday at the Park, scheduled for October 10th. The MBT website always has information on upcoming park events: http://mnassasbattlefield.org/events/

Q. One thing I’ve noticed in multiple trips to Manassas is the absence of markers describing parts of the battle, particularly for Second Manassas. I was excited to read that you were planning to develop new interpretive waysides at the park. What can you tell us about this project?

A. I know the Park is currently replacing and updating many of the waysides throughout the park, and this is an ongoing project. There have been several areas identified (mostly for Second Manassas) that are still in need of updating, or in the case of the Stuart’s Hill and the Unfinished Railroad, adding waysides, and the Trust would love to be able to fund these….all it takes is raising the funds through our members and donors!

Q. Your website mentions a lantern event to honor the fallen. We’d be interested in learning some more about this project.

A. This is something that other National Battlefields and National Military Parks do, and we would like to start the tradition here as well. Unfortunately, this takes both time and money, but we are anxious to get a program like this on the calendar as soon as possible.

Q. Do you have any fundraisers in the works?

A. Right now our main focus is in obtaining new members. We recently revised our website and giving levels, and will be looking to add 100 new members (in honor of the National Park Service’s upcoming 100th anniversary) by the end of October. I hope you and your readers will consider joining the Trust and help us reach our goal!

Q. What other projects do you have planned?

A. I have mentioned some of the possible projects that the Trust would like to support (new waysides, exhibits at Stone House and Brawner Farm, new Visitors Center desk), but our support is dependent on gaining members and donors to support the Trust and our goals. We are also hoping to get some special tours and programs scheduled for our Trust members in 2016.

Q. What are your membership goals?

A. Long term, the sky is the limit—we would like as many members and donors as possible. In the short term, we are looking for those 100 new members by the end of October, again to celebrate the upcoming Centennial of the National Park Service.

Q. How does one become a member?

A. Becoming a member is easy, and you have several options. The easiest way is to go on line and join (http://manassasbattlefield.org/donate/). Our memberships begin at $35, but any donation amount is welcome.You can also send me an email at dkathman@manassasbattlefield.org, or call our office at (703) 754-0791.

Q. What are some of the benefits of membership?

A. All of our members receive a 15% discount at the Park bookstore, a nifty “I Support Manassas Battlefield Trust” sticker for your car or truck, as well as invitations to upcoming special events and tours. We are also working on creating a membership pin (especially useful for all of our park volunteers who are also Trust members), and additional benefits for the higher giving levels. Stay tuned!

Q. Is there anything else you want to tell readers?

A. I hope everyone keeps in mind the importance of the Manassas National Battlefield Park. Not only is this land historically significant as the site of two major battles of the Civil War and as the location of several notable local farms and homesteads, it is also one of the last large tracks of green space in an increasingly urbanized area. As such, Manassas is a unique park that deserves local attention and preservation. I would invite all of you to join our efforts to support the park, especially as we look to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I hope you all will #findyourpark…and make that park Manassas National Battlefield Park!

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