Terry Rensel is not only the new executive director of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT), he’s also one of my closest friends. I’ve been talking with him about his recent move to Virginia and his career change from broadcaster to preservationist.
Chris Mackowski: What do you see coming into your new role? What do you see as a major challenge and/or a major opportunity—sometimes they are the same thing—a major challenge and/or a major opportunity for CVBT right now?
Terry Rensel: Telling our story, getting younger people involved, raising money so we can continue to do the preservation work. Those are all challenges, but they are also opportunities, because finding the way to make those breakthroughs, each one leads to the next step—whether it’s getting people interested in the history and the story, each one leads to the next step. Getting people engaged and interested will lead to the contributions and the fund-raising, which will lead to the preservation, which will lead to telling the story. It’s a loop.
CM: It’s cyclical, and stewardship becomes a very important context for all that.
TR: Absolutely. And, you know, right now, our main focus is on the preservation. But some properties we will, quite honestly, never be able to convey over to the Park Service, for various reasons, and so at some point, they’ll need to be interpreted. And when that time comes, that will become part of our role. So, it’s doing the ongoing work and building upon it, while also trying to build the organization of the future, which will include ongoing preservation, but also interpretation.
CM: That’s a very forward-looking vision for things. That reminds me of a story from your interview process, where you had asked folks around the table about the most important property the organization had preserved. Folks went around the people providing answers. Finish that story for me.
TR: It was a small group of board members, and I asked that question, and various people talked about various properties, you know, Willis Hill, and more recently, Myers Hill, that have been preserved. And then, you know, the board president, Tom Van Winkle, he spoke last, which I took as a sign of good leadership—he gave everyone else an opportunity to speak before saying his piece. And he looked at me and said, “The most important property we preserve is the next property.” And that was the moment I knew this was what I wanted to do, that these were the people that I wanted to work for and with, because here is a preservation organization that isn’t resting on what they did in the past, but looking at what we can do in the future.
CM: And when he said the next one, he wasn’t talking about some project that was underway but just under wraps, that hadn’t been revealed yet. He was talking in more of a visionary sort of way.
TR: He was invested in looking forward.
CM: Now, just for a moment, we talked about the challenge—or the opportunity—to tell the organization’s story. How would you differentiate CVBT from the American Battlefield Trust, which I know is part of the challenge of telling CVBT’s story?
TR: The American Battlefield Trust is a fantastic organization that does amazing work.
CM: I agree a hundred percent.
TR: It’s nationally focused. And focused on the Civil War, the War of 1812, and the Revolutionary War. The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust is focused Central Virginia, on the Fredericksburg area, on the four battles in that area: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Courthouse.
And so we are hyper locally focused, and that is our mission. Preserving the land that made up parts of those four battles and those battlefields is our sole focus.
CM: Having local “boots on the ground” where someone can actually see a for-sale sign go up, that’s just an invaluable perspective that often the ABT isn’t able to see. They are more like the satellite looking down on the whole country and big, big, big picture.
TR: Yes, they have the 30,000-foot view; we have the 300-foot view.
CM: So, give us a sales pitch for CVBT. Why should someone get involved?
TR: It’s our shared history as a nation, and people in the past have preserved what’s been, what’s there now for us. It is our responsibility as citizens to do whatever we can to preserve it for the next generation, for our children, for our grandchildren and for their grandchildren. And the way we do that at CVBT, is through the acquisition of land, saving dirt, preserving dirt and grass, where men, blue and gray, fought one another, to try to shape what this nation would be, and the only way we can do that work, is with the financial support of our partners in preservation.
CM: You mentioned “partners.” CVBT looks at its members as partners. What does it mean to be a partner with CVBT?
TR: That means that we are working together on a shared vision, for a common good, to do the work that we have all agreed is important and necessary. And it’s a way, too, to help build on that feeling of being a team and that we take your input to heart and very seriously and want to work with you for the common good. That’s the way I look at it.
CM: And there are some tangible benefits to being a partner.
TR: Oh, absolutely. You know, we do have a series of, you know, for lack of a better phrase, “thank you gifts,” rewards, for supporting us at various levels—beyond the reward from, you know, the ability to buy the dirt and grass.
CM: CVBT swag. And there’s the magazine, too.
TR: Which the, you know, the second issue of that is at the printers, as we speak. It’s a fantastic magazine, and it’s just an amazing job that, you know, the folks have done on it, you know, prior to my arrival. And I look forward to being more involved in it in the future. Ability to get issues of the old Fredericksburg history journal.
CM: There’s also the annual conference.
TR: The annual conference in April, 2020—the 24-26. And the interesting topic this year that we are kind of reinventing the whole battlefield tour thing we’ve been doing, and we are going to look at firsts, the first day, and why, of each battle, and why it is important and why it mattered and what happened there.
CM: How it set the tone for the rest of the fights.
CM: Before we wrap up, is there anything I have not asked you that I should have?
TR: No, besides, “What is the airspeed velocity of a swallow,” no.
CM: African or European?
CM: One question I didn’t ask you, coming from Homer, you have lived in the south, and Kentucky and in Florida.
TR: Five years in Orlando, Florida; four years in Louisville, Kentucky.
CM: Do you miss the snow yet?
CM: It was probably still snowing in Alaska when you left, wasn’t it?
TR: The snow was done. But not by much.
CM: And then you come down to this humidity, which I’m sure is a treat.
TR: I can cut this humidity with a knife. Oh, I remember this from when I last lived in the south, you know. Almost fifteen years ago.
CM: Well, welcome back to Dixie.
TR: Glad to be here.