A Conversation with Garry Adelman (part five)

Rushing for reinfocements on the field of Pickett's Charge, 2015. Photo by Bruce Guthrie
Garry rushes for reinforcements on the field of Pickett’s Charge, 2015. (photo by Bruce Guthrie)

part five of a six-part series

I’m speaking this week with Garry Adelman, chief historian at the American Battlefield Trust. In that role, Garry maintains a very high-profile presence, but he makes a real effort to protect his family’s privacy. I asked him, “How do you compartmentalize that when you are so face-forward with everything else?”

Garry Adelman: Well, first of all, my wife [Jennifer] helps with that because “Bachelder-Coddington Award-winner Garry Adelman” still takes out the garbage and picks up the dog crap in the back of the yard. So, she definitely keeps me grounded on that front.

We met on the Gettysburg Town Square. She went to Gettysburg College, although I didn’t meet her until years later; she used to come in to my restaurant. So, she has some exposure to this Civil War stuff.

But one key about all this is something I learned from friends and ex-girlfriends, all of whom I made hate the Civil War because I just didn’t know when to stop. I had learned before I met Jen and before my kids were born, to not push it. So I really don’t. I love this subject, I’m obsessed with it, but I don’t like much talking about it when I’m out and about doing things.

Sometimes, I’ll get recognized. It happens here and there. But I don’t like much talking about it when I’m with my family because that’s not what they’re there for. So, first of all, it’s that.

Secondly, my kids don’t give a crap about my public presence. They do not give a crap about it. They’ve grown up with it, they’ve watched it grow, but they do not give a crap. They give a crap about playing soccer in the basement with me or riding bikes around the neighborhood or playing tennis or playing Risk or whatever we’re doing. That’s what they care about, so it’s easy in a way. My family polices it for me.

Happily, it is our main breadwinner thing, so, happily, they’re very tolerant of my many travels and everything like that. I will say, because of my Facebook page, I want to make people think that I’m everywhere all the time having the greatest day in the world—which many days are like that, let me just say for the record—but I don’t travel nearly as much as people think. People always think I’m everywhere, but the way the posts are timed it makes it seem like I’m never home. That’s not the case and, I don’t know, I’m very comfortable with the balance. I wish I had a little bit more time with the kids because they’re in a perfect time right now—they’re 9 and 11—but I’m very comfortable with the amount of family versus work time, and it sort of self-regulates itself.

Chris Mackowski: That was one thing for me, growing up: I always wanted to be a writer, and it would be so cool to have my own books—and today I’m still scratching my head, like, “Oh my gosh, it happened!” But for my kids, it’s like, “Eh, big deal,” you know? They grew up around it, so it just didn’t have the excitement for them that it had for me, and I’m sure that’s kind of the same experience for you with your kids: “Well, of course dad’s on TV. Of course dad’s here or there. Of course dad’s doing this.”

Garry: Yeah. Jen hasn’t come to one of my talks or presentations in a long, long time. I used to ask her to come to about one a year. Now, it’s not even that often. It’s been years since she’s come to one, but she’s seen quite enough of it.

She was at a doctor’s appointment recently and it came up—I don’t know, small talk during the appointment, and somebody was into the Civil War, and Jen said something like “Oh, my husband works in this stuff,” and all of a sudden the woman was like, “Oh, I know him!” And what did my wife say? She said, “Yeah, if you see him on TV at all, he’s usually waving his arms around a lot”—which, when my kids make fun of me, that’s exactly the thing they do.

Chris: Do you mind talking about your kids at all?

Garry: Not at all. They are in fourth and sixth grade. We live in Maryland, away from the city. Jen and I are both city people, but raising kids in a smaller town was for us.

It’s interesting: There were 4,000 kids at my high school, and that was my bag. I went to Michigan State for my undergrad. I only liked big schools, and I loved my experience. But that’s not always what you want for your kids. So, we’re really happy to be out in the country.

Much to the shock of everyone who meets them, my boys are rather shy. A lot of kids are, I know, but they’re particularly shy, which seems strange around me. But at least one if not both of them have my level of energy, and I can’t explain that either. But we do chill out at night—there is such a thing. People find that hard to believe. But, we all love watching movies together and other things like that.

Chris: And you have a story about how you named them.

The 19th century-style wedding portrait upon which Garry insisted, 2001
The 19th century-style wedding portrait upon which Garry insisted, 2001 (photo courtesy Garry Adelman)

Garry: From the beginning I had no desire to involve the Civil War or any of my other obsessions—Twin Peaks, Pink Floyd, Star Wars, food—into our wedding ceremony or into our children in terms of anything permanent. At the wedding ceremony, all I asked is that we took one miserable-looking black and white photo looking at the camera like they did in old Civil War pictures, which we did. But in terms of naming the kids, I had no interest in having a Civil War history name for them. I didn’t want to impose my obsession upon them. Jen probably wouldn’t have gone for it anyway.

But I will say this: every time she brought up a terrible name for a kid, I would just bring up a Civil War name. So she would say “Well, I kind of like ‘Basil’” And I’d be like “Okay, then. How about Stapleton?” And she’d be like, “Well, how about Nigel?” Not that she said those specific ones, and my apologies to anyone named Basil or Nigel who might be reading this. She’d say, “How about Nigel?” and I’d say “Well I like Snowden.”—which, strangely, one of our kids was born during Snowmageddon and we got him to the hospital the only day we possibly could have, and I was stuck at the hospital for four days ‘cause we just couldn’t get home. We almost thought about naming him Snowden strangely enough.

So, the Civil War was a reverse stoppage to not ending up with another name I didn’t like!

Chris: So they have regular, ordinary, civilian names, then?

Garry: They do. We picked names that sounded good with “Adelman” which, in itself, is always mispronounced. And for everybody reading, it’s “A” like “Ray,” rhymes with “Ray”… “Del,” everybody knows how to say “Del”… “Man.” But, man, that does not stop just constant mispronunciations my whole life. People like putting the “l” in different places and adding an “r,” suddenly I’m “Alderman,” or “Aldeman,” or “Adleman.”

But my wife’s maiden name is “Dangle,” and she wasn’t exactly unanxious to drop that one, but I warned her, and now she feels the full flower. Most recently, when she got her master’s at American University, they totally butchered her last name, our last name.

Chris: For me, the tricky part to remember is “e” before “l” or “l” before “e.” I always have to double check that.

Garry: But, people always put the “l” before the “d,” and that’s just…. It’s nowhere near the “d.” But, you know, anybody with a mispronounced last name knows.

Chris: Sure, sure.

Garry: And, by the way, when I voice-dictated your name into a post I was doing yesterday, it was “Mukolfski.” You were more Russian.

Chris: I get that sometimes…. (laughter) So you’ve talked about your family in the work-family balance. I want to come back to the “work” component in a moment. But first, I want to ask you about another of your passions—something you’ve become really well-known for—and that’s your interest in Civil War photography.


Tune in tomorrow for his answer!

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