part four of a six-part series
I’m talking this week with my friend Garry Adelman, the chief historian at the American Battlefield Trust. In the first segments of our conversation, Garry traced his winding professional path, following his passion. We talked a little yesterday about the impact his celebrity has had on him and the lessons he’s learned from that. I followed up by asking him what other lessons he’s learned along the way.
Garry Adelman: I guess the other thing that I’ve learned is that you have to be really patient. I mean, a history thing doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of careful work over the years, so I stress patience. I stress being careful. I stress carving out something that you can be the best at. What are you going to be the best at? And don’t say “the Civil War.” Nobody’s the best at the Civil War. Don’t even say “the Battle of Stone’s River.” Maybe it’s one part of that battle, or maybe it’s one part of social history or something like that.
And another important thing: don’t compromise. I mean, I know so many people who’ve endorsed other people’s crappy books and projects, and they knew they were crap, but they were their friends so they did that sort of thing. I think you have to be uncompromising. Once you compromise yourself, those things can come back to bite you professionally.
So, perseverance and passion and patience and, at first, volunteering—I mean, I still do a lot of volunteer work but I used to do a lot of volunteer work because, in the end, this is about people. Relationships aren’t quite everything, but they’re really close to everything, and you may have to develop positive relationships with 50 people before one helps you get on that documentary, or one helps you get that book published, or one helps you get the job you really want.
Chris Mackowski: And if you do it in an explicit “I want to get something out of you” kind of way, that undermines the whole thing.
Chris: You have to do it for the right reasons.
Garry: Yes, you’re right. I mean, you can be cognizant of “Hey, you know what, these people could help me someday.” I thought it when I gave my first tour to Jim Lighthizer and some other board of trustee members. I didn’t cowtow to them, but I thought “Here’s a guy I’m glad I’m giving a tour to.” I’m sure he didn’t remember that tour, when I came and interviewed with him years later. Um, you never know. I could have had no idea that I’d ever be working at the Trust at that point. I don’t even know if I wanted to work at the Trust at the time I gave him that tour. But I did good work, I gave him a good tour, and I didn’t say like “What can I get out of you later?” I did my work well. And that stuff really pays off.
In my case, it took me forever, it feels like, you know? I moved to Gettysburg in 1992 and didn’t get my dream job until 2010. That’s the better part of two decades. And so that took a lot of patience and a lot of free work over the years.
Chris: There’s that whole idea that you really have to bust your ass and be willing to put in the time, pay your dues and just work it. That’s part of the process.
Garry: Oh my word, it takes a lot of hard work. I mean, do you think during the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College that I wanted to be at that event running a snack bar and taking out trash in front of all the other historians? No—but I did. That was my job, and I was in Gettysburg, I was moving along well. And eventually, I would speak at the Civil War Institute, and they invite me to speak there every year or two.
So, yes it was not easy. I worked very hard, and I spoke to a lot of groups, the smallest of which was three. In the old days, I would drive several hours just to speak to forty people. That doesn’t make sense for me anymore, but I did it and you should, too, whoever’s reading this. If you want to have a job in history, you have to stand out among all those other thousands of people who have the same idea you do and are probably equally passionate. So you need something to stand out.
Chris: Passion is not enough.
Garry: It’s not close to enough
Chris: If you say, “Well, I’m really passionate about this,” that’s your starting point. That’s not your selling point.
Garry: Right. And it’s the same way with the Trust. I mean, we have passionate people working there, but one of the reasons we’re successful is because we don’t have 50 Garry Adelmans there. We have professional lobbyists and professional real estate people and professional development people, because none of that land gets saved without a lot of money and a lot of professional work with the government and on the real estate side and on the event side. I mean, no land gets saved without that. So, passion definitely is not enough.
When it comes to getting a history job, if you can get a part-time history job, you’re doing well. I still have three part-time history jobs outside of my full-time job, as I know you do, too, Chris. (laughter)
Chris: True! (laughs) So let me go back, because you talked a second ago about being the best at something. How would you describe what you are the best at?
Garry: Well, mine’s not topical. What I’m the best at, or so people tell me, is getting people excited about our subjects, about especially the Civil War and history in general. I love the idea that I’m serving people a positive experience. My particular brand is that every day is a great day to learn about history. That is something that people call out about me the most. It’s my enthusiasm.
Chris: I would agree that you are the benchmark for that.
Garry: Cool. Thank you. Anybody who knows me—and the social media world has only solidified this—knows that this is just how I am. Period. I’ve had many people in the last three years, because they see me on my videos, who think it’s some sort of contrivance, and then they meet me, and I’m like “Wow, check it out! You just got a new Toyota! Wow, that’s awesome!” And they’re like, “You’re actually like this.” It’s surprising….
Chris: I’d heard that about your before I first met you: “What you see with Garry is what you get. That’s the real Garry.”
Garry: But let me tell you one exception, because the thing that people are most surprised about about me is that I like giving people a hard time. I like to do it in fun.
Something else that might surprise a lot of people is that Garry has a personal life that he keeps personal despite his very high-profile presence. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about his work/family balance, and how the Civil War runs as an undercurrent in family dynamics.