I’ve been talking this week with Terry Rensel, the new executive director of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. He also serves on the editorial board for ECW’s blog. Terry came to his historical adventures by a round-about route.
Chris Mackowski: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Terry Rensel: Well, I double-majored in college as an undergraduate, history/political science and broadcast communication. Ended up spending pretty much my entire professional career working in broadcasting—a little bit of time in commercial broadcasting, but most of that time in public broadcasting.
Ten years ago, I went back to graduate school, got a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Alaska, Southeast, in Juneau, Alaska—a completely online distance program, absolutely fantastic—and continued to work in public broadcasting. But history has always been my personal passion, always been my personal love—and this past spring, this opportunity presented itself to me.
CM: How does that skill set match up with what an organization like CVBT needs?
TR: The Master’s of Public Administration—a lot of people call it the nonprofit and governmental version of an MBA. The skills that I came out of that program with involve management, leadership, budgeting, finance. All that stuff helped me end up becoming general manager of the public radio station in Homer, Alaska, where I had been the program manager for the previous nine years. I served as G.M. for three years: managed staff, built and managed budgets, dealt with constituents of all sorts—local individuals, businesses, state and local government, and funding agencies, as well as just general members of the community.
CM: So, in other words, you have got a lot of experience working with a small, community-based nonprofit.
CM: Now, when one thinks of Homer, Alaska, one does not necessarily think there is a lot of Civil War going on up there, so, what sort of connection do you have to the war?
TR: Well, it’s always been a general interest of mine, personally. I’m originally from Erie, Pennsylvania. The most famous regiment from that area in the war was the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment.
CM: Played a key role at Gettysburg on Little Round Top.
TR: Yes. Led by its colonel, Strong Vincent. Memorialized at Gettysburg and other places as Brigadier General Strong Vincent. One of the local high schools in Erie is named after him and their mascot was The Colonels because, well, he was the regimental colonel.
Beyond that, I’ve had a couple of very specific things that have been personal interests of mine: Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt.
TR: Bully, bully. But beyond that, I’ve come across things that are of interest to me, and it leads me to the next thing and the next thing. The last couple of years, I have spent a little bit of time with the Civil War through the work of the Emerging Civil War book series. And also the Founding Fathers. I spent a lot of time with the Founders in the last year and a half or so, which all kind of coalesces around Northern and Central Virginia.
CM: Unless you’re John Adams.
TR: Yeah. Of course. Well, or Alexander Hamilton.
CM: He’s on Broadway now.
TR: You know what? Absolutely fantastic show. If you get a chance to see it, you should.
CM: I always find myself singing the tunes from 1776, which featured Adams as the central character.
TR: Of course.
CM: But you also have some other involvement with Emerging Civil War as well, beyond just being a reader of the book series.
TR: I’ve been on the editorial board for the blog for two years now, two and a half years. You know, time flies. Many people reading this may not know you and I go back a long, long way. We have known each other since college. And I think on and off for years, you have talked with me about what’s been going on with Emerging Civil War, and finally a couple years ago, we were able to have an opportunity for me to have a role in working with the blog. And I have really enjoyed that work.
CM: Tell us a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes with ECW’s editorial board.
TR: We get a submission—and actually, in the last six months or so, it’s all being done through Google docs now—and everybody gives feedback based on what they’ve read and their personal knowledge and expertise and areas of interest. And we help the authors get their pieces in shape and condition to be published on the blog.
CM: So there is a real developmental role in what you guys do.
CM: Most of the people on the editorial board are active historians, actively publishing, and your role was to come in as sort of an outside peer reviewer in a way. You didn’t have that same level of writing investment that others did. What kind of perspective did that allow you to bring to evaluating submissions?
TR: I would like to think a couple of things that I brought to the table was, one, I know a good story. I know a good story when I hear it from my experience as a broadcaster, and when I read it, as someone who pretty much reads exclusively history in my personal time, for my personal pleasure, or other nonfiction.
And two, as someone who may not have as much knowledge of any specific topic that’s being written about, I hope what I bring is the perspective of someone who is just learning about this, or taking their first deep dive into a subject. And, you know, there are a lot of readers of the blog with a lot of personal knowledge of expertise, but there are also a lot of people who are finding their first dips into the waters of the Civil War through the blog.
CM: So you get to be that educated, informed reader but you don’t necessarily have the expertise in some of the stuff so you can see where some of the holes or the gaps may be.
CM: So now you are working as a professional historian.
TR: And I am very happy to be able to say that.
CM: What’s that like?
TR: It’s great, because that’s what I originally went to college to do—well, quite honestly, to be a social studies teacher, but I quickly realized that being a full-time educator is something that you have to have a passion for and I didn’t quite have that level of passion. I have a couple of aunts who are now retired teachers, and I just felt I couldn’t live up to what I felt I needed to be “in the family business.”
But, I continued with the history and the political science aspect of the education, because those have always been passions and interests of mine. So, the fact that after almost a 30-year career in broadcasting, while still a relatively young man, I get to change careers and be involved in a subject that was always a passion of mine on a personal level, is extremely gratifying.
CM: Preservation is a pretty focused area of the history field. What is it about the general idea of preservation that appeals to you?
TR: We need to know where we have come from before we can know where we are going. And, yeah, you can read about it in a book; you can watch, you know, a Ken Burns documentary; you can go to the movie; but to actually be on the ground, to be able to see the same things that people in the past saw, whether it’s a battlefield, or historic site, or any piece of property, a building, a field, whatever. It’s tactile. You get to see it, you get to touch it, you get to hear the sounds that go on there.
And then it’s preserving the history so we can pass it onto the next generation so that this generation and the generations to follow can learn from our past to hopefully not make the same mistakes—and if we do, to learn the lessons of it.
CM: I think the million-dollar question that we have these days is how do we get more young people involved? And it always seems to me that almost a sure-fire way is to get them out onto the battlefields and let them experience those landscapes for themselves. That’s a great way to kindle someone’s interest.
Getting young people interested in history is but one challenge facing the history field these days. Tomorrow, Terry will conclude by talking about some of the other challenges he sees, as well.