A Conversation with the Country’s Biggest Civil War Roundtable (part five)

Mike Powell (at the podium) and Wally Rueckel (seated)

(part five of a six-part series)

As ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski continues his conversation with Mike Powell, president of the Brunswick (N.C.) Civil War Roundtable—the largest in the country—they talk today about the importance of collaboration.

CM: One of the things your roundtable has taken a leadership role in is a state-wide collaboration with other roundtables in an effort to improve communication and share resources. Can you tell me more about that?

MP: Wally [Rueckel] and I were talking for years. He and I both have histories with roundtables around the country, and they’re all the same: thirty or forty guys, you can almost picture the smoke-filled room and pouring shots of liquor, you know? (laughs) They have their speakers, they don’t really have volunteers to do anything outside of that. They don’t have money to get speakers; they’re dragging in people off the street to come in and talk. Most of the talks they get are from locals who have an interest in something and they’re willing to come in and talk to them. And they’re not really interested in whether women come or not—and that’s a mistake. That’s a big mistake. Not only do you get the women to come, but more men are able to come if they’re able to bring their women!

But anyway, you’ve gotta have money to get good speakers. And I know a lot of these places, they expect speakers to come for nothing—and that’s ridiculous! Historians are professionals, just like everybody else, y’know? (laughs) 

CM: I like to try and do as many of them as I can, as long as I’m not losing money.

MP: Exactly! And that’s the attitude that ninety-nine percent of speakers have. They’re more than willing to give, y’know? But you can’t expect them to incur expenses and use their time for nothin’. So, that’s another thing we try to talk about with other folks.

But you’d think I was telling them to cut their arm off or something: “What do you mean, pay ‘em? We don’t pay anybody!”

“Well,” I say, “you probably don’t get very good speakers, either.” Or, you’ll get ‘em once, but then they’ll say, “Well, I came down there once and did your thing for you, but, you know.” This is a business, right?

So, as far as the speakers go, being able for some of these smaller roundtables to hook on to a larger roundtable and pick up a speaker for shared expenses—that’s really gonna help them.

What I did is I took a calendar and put the dates of each roundtable’s meetings during the month to see which ones kinda line up, y’know, and then, what we’ll do at this upcoming meeting in August is see what we might be able to do. It didn’t line up very well. You have Monday/Thursday in one week, then Tuesday Friday in the next week.

If I can get three roundtables to change their dates, we can have a Monday/Tuesday/Thursday for three weeks out of each month that they could share speakers.

Will they change? (shrugs slowly) A lot of resistance to that—to changing venues and changing dates. You know, especially ones in the city, it’s hard getting a good venue that you can afford, that’s relatively secure when people are walking around at night. But, they all say that they are. That’s what we did last year: let’s see who are the players and who’s going to hold firm to “We’re doing it our way and our way only.” Everyone seems willing to do it, vocally, so let’s see what happens when reality sets in.

I mean, we can’t change, with the numbers that we have and the limited places that can hold us. So we can’t change—but the rest of ‘em can change. And honestly, we don’t need to hook up with speakers because we can afford them. We’re flush. You’d blush if I told you how much money we have. (laughter)

CM: But, again, that’s the outlier compared to most of these other roundtables.

MP: Exactly! We can afford to bring in a band.

The extra communication has already paid a lot of benefits. There’s a historian, a guy named David Schultz, he’s moving here, and the president of the roundtable where he was at wrote me a letter and said, “Hey, this guy is coming out there.” They’d have never done that before. So, it’s just that little kind of stuff. The symposiums they’re always having around the state. Like Raleigh. Raleigh’s close enough that I’ll drive up there for their symposium. And we’ve had people come down from Raleigh to the Fort Caswell symposium. But they’ve got to know about it first. You’ve got to know about it.

And with the North Carolina group—we’re close enough that we can share trip costs. A bus costs you $1200 a day, whether you have ten people on it or fill it. You might as well fill it and spread that cost around.

CM: You’d mentioned earlier, when we talked about teaching the Civil War in schools, about possibly bringing that up with the state board of education. With the consortium you guys have among Civil War Roundtables in the state, maybe that’s a little more leverage because you’re speaking in numbers.

MP: It is. And that’s one of the things we’re going to talk about at a meeting we’re all having in August. Let’s pool our resources and see if we can’t reach out, and if they hear it enough, from enough organizations, they may buy into it.

CM: Aside from scheduling, have their been any other major topics of conversation among groups?

MP: The other thing a lot of other groups are reluctant to do is go out to newspapers and other media venues and ask them, “If I give you an article about our meeting, when do you need it from me?” Because these newspapers are on deadlines. If it happened today, and you get them the article tomorrow, that’s great. A day later? It’s old news. So I’ve said to ‘em, just go out there and find out what their timeframes are and meet ‘em, and you’re going to get better coverage.

CM: A lot of people don’t realize that if you provide a well-written piece, most papers will take it because they’re already overworked, and they might not have staff to cover your event, but they still need copy.

MP: Columns to fill. They’ve got columns to fill. So find somebody that’s a good writer, let ‘em write it up, and give ‘em a couple pictures to choose from. The papers here have always been most accommodating. We have such a good relationship with these papers right here, it’s ridiculous.

CM: My experience has been that people get into this because they like the Civil War, not because they have expertise in writing press releases. So maybe there are willing people, but they just don’t have the skill set or the knowledge to do it.

MP: Whenever I get the chance to talk to a new member or someone who wants to get involved, I don’t tell them what I need. I ask them, “What can you do?” Tell me what you can do, and I’ll tell you what you can do for us. Because, like I say, if you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it. You have to enjoy working with Publisher to put out the newsletter. You’ve got to enjoy meeting people and doing the computer stuff and all that. So, yeah, I don’t try forcing anything down anybody’s throat that they don’t want to do. It never works out. They’re volunteers—they’re not getting paid. I mean, the minute I don’t have fun, I’m gone. You know? I’m gone. (laughs) I’ve got other things I can do. I can go out and play golf! (laughs)


When Chris’s conversation with Mike concludes tomorrow, they’ll wrap up by talking about some of the other initiatives the Brunswick Civil War Roundtable is involved with—from field trips to preservation.

2 Responses to A Conversation with the Country’s Biggest Civil War Roundtable (part five)

  1. All good. They’ve developed some really good strategies and procedures. I’d love to know about the specifics of the events Mike’s RT has offered that successfully attracted more women attendees and/or other attendees who would not normally attend an RT event.

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