Since its start in 1997, the Veterans Memorial Museum, which now stands at 100 SW Veterans Way in Chehalis, has aimed for something higher than the retelling of American wars.
Museum Executive Director Chip Duncan recalled that for founder Lee Grimes, “it was a call from God to start the museum.”
“He realized that if (veterans) don’t talk about it, then their stories and their contributions to American history get reserved to, if they’re lucky, maybe a sentence in a history book. … He literally went around the community taking interviews of veterans on the video camera,” Duncan said.
The idea at the core of Grimes’ project is now reflected in the museum’s slogan: “They shall not be forgotten.”
To accomplish that mission, the museum needed to be more than its displays. Through parades, ceremonies, car shows and other events, the Veterans Memorial Museum became a hub for community activities.
2019 marked the museum’s 24th year of Independence Day parades. Come July 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, Duncan knew the museum couldn’t safely continue their tradition without modification. In something of an epiphany, Duncan decided on a “static parade,” during which parade-goers would drive through a field of floats.
“So that kind of sparked the whole idea of the phrase that I just kept using: ‘don’t focus on what we can’t do. Let’s focus on what we can do,’” Duncan said.
The success of the static parade astonished museum staff. With people coming all the way from Portland and Seattle, they estimated a total of about 1,500 attendees.
Another bonus to the drive-through parade, Duncan said, was watching community members reunite for the first time in months. Opposed to a traditional parade, drivers and float sponsors were able to take a few moments to catch up.
“I apologize to our neighbors because we definitely created a lot of traffic jams,” Duncan said. He remembers walking down the line of vehicles, thanking everyone for coming and apologizing for the wait. Everyone’s response was the same.
“Everybody was like, ‘No, thank you for just putting this on. Because we’re finally getting a little bit of the sense of normalcy,’” he said.
As the year went on, the museum kept finding new ways to host fun events where people could feel comfortable and safe participating.
When the Hub City Car Show couldn’t get permits to use the streets, the Veterans Memorial Museum hosted an event on its grounds instead. Duncan was especially concerned about that show because it is usually put on by the Lewis County Quarter Milers Car Club, which provides scholarships for Centralia College students in the welding and diesel tech programs. The money raised at the modified show exceeded expectations, and the Quarter Milers were able to provide three scholarships, one more than usual.
When Halloween came around, more was known about transmission of COVID-19. The museum decided to keep its model of the drive-through parade for those who wanted it, but added an outdoor walk-through “trunk-or-treat.”
The turnout was overwhelming.
In total, Duncan believes about 4,000 people came to the event. At some point, Duncan realized they were running out of candy and drove to Walmart to purchase nearly $2,000 worth of goodies.
It took him an hour to get back to the museum.
“Even as logistically a nightmare as that was, it was so awesome to see how many kids were so happy that their Halloween was not canceled,” he said.
Many other events took place on the Veterans Memorial Museum grounds throughout the year, and more still are planned for the future.
Positive community feedback reminded Duncan why he started working for the Veterans Memorial Museum in the first place. Growing up, his father worked at the Pentagon studying the history of warfare to prepare for the next world war. One of his primary duties was to study the cultures of America’s potential enemies. His father’s profession taught him to take interest in human nature.
Duncan received his bachelor’s degree in architecture and worked for a Portland architectural firm. Then, in 2001, Duncan said he and his wife “felt the call to go into Christian missionary work.” They spent seven years with the Hungarian military chaplaincy training their chaplains to be more effective.
At the advice of a friend, Duncan and his wife came to a church service in Lewis County to raise money. The day before, Duncan stopped at the Veterans Memorial Museum. Suddenly, the original motivation behind his trip to the area vanished. He spent hours there, transfixed by the deeply-personal stories told for every item. He had found a place with a mission matching his passion: war history based not on the weaponry or the governments, but the individual experiences of veterans. At church the next day, Duncan spent 10 minutes of his 15-minute mission work presentation raving about the museum, prompting Grimes to approach him. By 2010, Duncan was the executive director.
So far, his work has made a significant positive impact on the museum, and the museum’s record through the past year points to more success in the future.
Duncan noted they hope to expand their veteran support services in the future, citing the Veterans Services Hub in Thurston County’s work as an inspiration. Already, the Veterans Memorial Museum has certified 12 local veterans to be peer counselors, and this summer they intend to host in-person training of the same variety.
Embracing creative, unconventional methods, the Veterans Memorial Museum will continue seeking to be more than simply a collection of artifacts.
“We need to be here. Not only for our veterans, but for our community as a whole. Because there are a lot of things about this community that are so unique,” Duncan said. “And if you’re just not going to be there for your neighbors, then why even be here anyways?”
To find out about upcoming events, visit the “Event Schedule” page at veteransmuseum.org.