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The National Corvette Museum

A Bumpy Start Has Evolved Into A Steady Progression Of Growth And Hope

Ronnie Hartman Feb 1, 2000

Step By Step

The Beginning

Back in the 1980s, a group of Corvette enthusiasts got to thinking about the history of the Corvette and became concerned that important pieces of it might disappear over time. Based on an idea sprung from the mind of Terry McManmon that there should be a Corvette library, some of these enthusiasts, including Jon Brookmyer and Ray Battaglini of the NCRS, and Darryl Bowlin, former human resources manager at the Corvette plant, reasoned that there should be a specific place to house and catalog all things Corvette--information, memorabilia, the cars themselves--in short, a Corvette museum. They brought this idea to the National Corvette Restorers Society, which gave them some seed money to get the thing going, and they set to work.

Since the talk of building a museum began among people affiliated with the National Corvette Restorers Society, the group initially congealed as the National Corvette Restorers Society Foundation. As other groups and organizations became involved, the foundation name became a more encompassing "National Corvette Museum Foundation." It was established in 1988 with the goal of constructing a museum that would house classic Corvettes and Corvette information and memorabilia.

Although the 20-member NCMF board had full endorsement from the Chevrolet Motor Division, it's important to note that not one of them had had any prior experience with an undertaking of this magnitude. They were, as former board member and former Corvette Fever Editor Paul Zazarine called them, "Just a bunch of Corvette guys" whose only tool was "absolute dedication." What got Paul hooked was a speech Zora Duntov made at the opening of the Corvette Museum Annex in downtown Bowling Green on November 2, 1990. Zora--beloved as the "Father of the Corvette," having engineered the early ones--said, "Please build this museum and save the things that I've built."

How could any true Corvette enthusiast ignore the plea of the man so instrumental to the success of the car?

The hobbyists-turned-crusaders were fiercely dedicated to the realization of the dream, but unfortunately, were in some ways ill-prepared for what lay ahead. They needed to find the land, arrange for financing, do the preliminary fundraising and publicity, find someone to build it, research and file the necessary paperwork--all without giving up their day jobs. None of them had ever done anything like this before.

Problems of all sorts arose, as was almost inevitable. They hired a professional fundraiser who promised to raise 10 million dollars for the cause and gathered only a tenth of that. That amount was reduced by the considerable expenses the group was incurring to get the project off the ground. Dan Gale, who was part of the effort from the beginning, admits, "We made a bunch of mistakes."

They were inexperienced and ran smack into a number of obstacles that slowed them down--and cost money. Gale tells of learning that the state of Kentucky required an "economic-impact study" to state the case and get financial backing for the project. That exercise cost $10,000 and, in his opinion, did little to further the cause.

Meanwhile, the crusaders were preaching the message far and wide that this museum would be built, and that Chevrolet would be donating its archives. But fundraising was slow. Nothing was happening. And GM was understandably slow to commit to turning anything of value over. Gale realized that they were losing credibility. "I was a good BS artist, but over time, nobody believed us. We had to show people we were doing something." He, Darryl Bowlin, and Ray Battaglini opened the National Corvette Museum Annex in a Bowling Green shopping center in 1990. It remained open until three days before the museum itself opened in 1994. The annex was primarily a gift shop, but also served as a national headquarters for administrative and fundraising activities until the museum was built. Half of the board disagreed with this move, causing internal strife.

Somebody needed to be there on a full-time basis, making things happen. Dan Gale left his home in Massachusetts and actually lived in a motel in Bowling Green for a period of three years, working hard to keep the project moving. It became an obsession.

At long last, the museum designed by the architectural firm Neumann Smith, and built by workers who wore shirts declaring, "I helped build a dream," (a Dan Gale retort to naysayers), was set to open in September 1994. Paul Zazarine tells of how he and Dan Gale took Zora Duntov on a tour of the building. They watched as Exhibitworks, the group that built the exhibits, put the finishing touches on the displays. Zora began to cry. It was an emotional moment, one that Zazarine and Gale must have sometimes doubted would ever come. They started crying, too. It was real.

Because of their limitations as amateurs, continuing internal conflict among the board members, and financial difficulties, there came a time when the museum needed professional expertise if it were to survive. Nevertheless, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who got the thing off the ground in the first place (see sidebar).

Some of Dan Gale's contributions have already been mentioned; working at his side was Ray Battaglini, who was also president of the National Corvette Restorers Society during those early, busy days. GM people were involved, too. Ralph Kramer and Jim Perkins provided public relations efforts, went to suppliers and got donations set up, got cars from GM "on bailment" (meaning "in trust for a special purpose"), and provided involvement in GM events around the country that helped raise dollars for the dream.

Kramer, public relations director at Chevrolet from 1986 to 1993 and currently on the museum's board of directors, recalls, "GM had never done anything quite like this. There had never been a museum celebrating one of our marques. I was the ambassador and tried to plead the case with the organization. It was our good fortune to have Jim Perkins as general manager [of Chevrolet]. It wasn't a hard sell. The time was right; the car was going to be 40 years old. Perkins was a believer."

Kramer remembers two groups of Corvette loyalists, from the NCRS and the NCCC. He says, "There were times when they didn't talk, but those two wings of the Corvette religion were able to come together for the sake of the museum." He speaks of "the genius of Dan Gale" in building the annex to bring a sense of the concrete to the dream. "It's all been a learning experience," he says, and adds, "The Corvette brings out the passion in people. It's a very emotional car."

Today, both the NCRS and the NCCC are represented on the museum's board, and while the $15 million building has left the museum heavily in debt, "The building is there, visible--the cathedral," Kramer says. "And we did it without heavy corporate support." It was important, he thinks, that GM not be too visibly involved. There were those who thought that GM had not done justice to the Corvette, and he admits there was some truth to that. He believes the arm's-length approach GM took in supporting the museum worked for everybody. "Perkins would look for ways to keep the thing going--Chevrolet gave the one millionth Corvette to the museum, no strings attached."

Perkins also permitted the museum board to contact the 100 largest dealers in the country, who accounted for approximately 80 percent of all Corvette sales, at a special reception in Las Vegas. Many of those dealers responded with financial help. Other, smaller dealerships contributed as well. Perkins' help didn't falter, even after he left Chevrolet. At the museum's grand opening, he was instrumental in getting GM to spend thousands of dollars organizing the caravan and reception. Kramer allows that Chevrolet has benefited from the museum, so it hasn't been a one-way street.

Not to be omitted are the many contributors large and small, including workers at the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, who contributed $270,000 over a period of time in payroll deductions! The local community contributed the land, the utilities, and the streets, along with fundraising to the tune of about $500,000. Clearly, the effort to build this museum was not without passion.

The infusion of professional help the museum ultimately required came as a result of serious financial difficulties. The original group couldn’t achieve the financial stability the banks required. The situation was grave and threatened the very future of the museum. Enter Wendell Strode. A resident of Bowling Green since 1961 with a successful 25-year banking career behind him, Strode had been a member of Bowling Green’s Chamber of Commerce Task Force that had made the pitch for locating the museum in Bowling Green. He’d gone to the 1989 Cypress Gardens NCRS meet to speak with museum organizers and further that cause.

Strode left Bowling Green in 1994 to assume a bank presidency elsewhere, but returned for the museum's grand opening in September. He was much dismayed to realize "how many bridges had been burned with so many crucial entities--clubs, Chevrolet, the Corvette plant, the enthusiasts"--all due, he says, to poor communication. Membership was declining. He began an association with Corvette enthusiasts that he says ignited his desire to make the museum work. In his position as executive director, he has worked to bring a professionalism to the museum's operation, and a credibility factor that will encourage faith in its future and grow the membership.

When asked what is the museum's greatest challenge today, both he and long-time board member Ralph Kramer say it's the library. It's ironic that the seminal portion of the dream will be realized only after the building has been built and the exhibits finished and on display for more than five years. The coveted archives. Buildsheets. A wealth of information to the hobbyist and for posterity.

Chevrolet was reluctant to turn material over before they could ascertain that the museum had a plan to handle them, catalog them, preserve them. Kramer says the museum's job now is "to prove to ourselves and to GM that we can handle it. We have dedicated space for this material; security mechanisms are in place. We have the tools to deal with it."

The museum employs 15 full-time people and 15 part-timers, and has plenty of volunteer help. Some pretty special Corvettes are on display, including the one-millionth built. Some have been donated; others are on loan. Exhibits are rotated to ensure a fresh, exciting perspective, so repeat visits are new adventures. There are prototypes, futuristic concepts and designs, memorabilia, numerous displays and exhibits, a 200-seat Chevrolet theater featuring a film depicting the history of the Corvette, and still planned--the elusive library.

Today, although accolades for his efforts abound, Executive Director Wendell Strode lays the credit for the growth and health of the museum squarely at the feet of the Corvette enthusiasts who have supported it in ever-growing numbers. Since 1996, membership has grown from 1,632 to 3,300. Not coincidentally, Strode took over in December 1996 and immediately began building new bridges between the museum and the hobby, the local community, General Motors, and all Corvette enthusiasts. Asked about the growth and vigor the museum has been building and how it came about, he says, "We have facilitated an open environment so enthusiasts can contribute." He invites all enthusiasts to get involved and continues to work toward strengthening those bonds to build confidence in the museum, and as he puts it, "earn the right to conduct fundraising campaigns." A humble but effective philosophy.

As we prepare to round the corner into the next century, the major figures at the National Corvette Museum include: Executive Director Wendell Strode, Curator Richard Clark, Education Director Susan Clark, Director of Marketing and Communications Marty Cassady, and Director of Finance and Human Resources Christy Thomas. There are certainly many others without whom the museum could not function, but these people are key.

With Richard Clark coming on as curator to help manage the myriad of day-to-day functions, Wendell Strode has recently turned more of his considerable energy to strategic planning, including fundraising and development. He has already raised $75,000 to fund the purchase of 25 acres adjacent to the museum, acquired last December. He says this land purchase was crucial because there had been parking for only about 300 cars, a real issue when planning mega-events. He says they need the space for the C5 birthday bash and the NCRS Year 2000 convention, which will be held at the museum. A critical factor in the decision to hold the convention at the museum was space enough to accommodate the event.

Strode is a long-range planner. He's been concerned about future expansion--perhaps a free-standing library, or maybe a Corvette diner. This parcel was the only possible expansion site, and it was for sale. Several leased billboards on the property bring in some regular revenue. It was a solid investment.

The long-awaited library will be organized by the very capable Susan Clark. Susan and her curator husband have a considerable collection of their own Corvette memorabilia, which Susan has painstakingly and meticulously catalogued. They have loaned their collection to the museum, and Susan stands ready to catalog future contributions.

Director of Marketing and Communications Marty Cassady has done much positive promotion of the museum to the media, the local region, and to the Corvette enthusiasts. He organized last year's birthday celebration and is busy at work on the one coming this Labor Day weekend. He spearheaded the C5 birthday bash and the recent ZR-1 gathering, among other projects.

Things at the museum are coming together nicely under the tutelage of the dedicated people who have taken up the torch passed to them by those earlier zealots. Its future looks bright, and its destiny is certainly in capable hands. All that remains is for the rest of us to lend our support to ensure that the Corvette treasures of yesterday, today, and tomorrow survive.

It is an interesting irony that the struggles of the National Corvette Museum parallel the struggles of the Corvette itself, which got off to a very shaky start. And look at it today. Firmly established as America's sports car, its story, we hope, will be repeated by the museum established to house its history. Better a long and winding road than a dead end.


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