This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place July 1-3, 1863. My Twitter stream has been full of articles and photos from the commemorative events, which has me full of nostalgia — for as odd as it seems to say, the battle that was pivotal to the Civil War is actually also a fairly significant milestone in my own life.
Here’s the story:
When I was a junior in high school, a group of students from my AP American History class were being picked to attend a week-long summer program at Gettysburg College called the Civil War Institute. I was familiar with it through a teacher who was a family friend, and — as I was already a fully formed history nerd by the age of 17 — I wanted one of those scholarships. There was, however, no application process and no information on when or how kids were being chosen, so I had no idea how to make it happen.
And then out of the blue one day, my teacher announced the four students who had been selected to go. Four students, none of whom was me. Such a disappointment!
I don’t know why I wanted to go so badly; I was interested in the Civil War, but not all that fascinated by it (yet). And while I was friendly with my classmates who’d been chosen to go, I wasn’t especially close with any of them. Looking at it in hindsight, I can’t recall any reason it seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity, but nevertheless, I went to the teacher after class to ask her why she hadn’t picked me. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, beyond a vague recollection that someone dropped out, but my initiative paid off — I was picked as the replacement and would be heading to Gettysburg in July.
Our topic that year was the Battle of Gettysburg, which was then celebrating its 125th anniversary. I spent a week listening to lectures from mind-bogglingly knowledgable scholars, touring the battlefield with a level of detail that had never occurred to me, and hanging out with new friends — both other high school students and the few adults who didn’t find a pack of teenagers as irritating as we likely were. I learned a ton, and had such a good time that I attended the Institute at least a dozen more times over the next 15 years.
It doesn’t sound like a life-changing experience, I’ll grant you. Maybe more fun than your average conference, but surely not more than that.
Fast-forward almost 10 years, to late 1997. I was planning my move from Albany to DC, but was struggling with job hunting. I was talking on the phone one night with my friend Kevin — whom I had met at my second Civil War Institute — about the trouble I was having finding good prospects and he suggested I apply where he was working at the time, the Holocaust Museum. And so I did.
I got the job.
About a year later, I was feeling like it was time to move on, and Kevin once again had the answer: his wife Donna (maybe fiancée then?) was working at the National Trust for Historic Preservation — where I had wanted to work ever seen seeing then-President Dick Moe speak at (you guessed it!) the Civil War Institute — and they had some openings. If I applied, she could let HR know I was a good candidate.
Again, I got the job.
And, 14-plus years later, there I remain, because I’ve found career path that lets me talk about my passion for old places (and for finding new uses for them) on the Internet all day long. How great is that?
And so, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg also marks the 25th anniversary of when I unknowingly put myself on my path to adulthood. Crazy, eh?