SCHERERVILLE — The Veterans Museum's grand opening at the Tri-Town Safety Village drew an estimated 200 people Saturday afternoon to honor veterans and educate the generations that follow.
For Don Talbot, of Munster, the museum was much more than a history lesson. Talbot was captured as a prisoner while serving in the Vietnam War and was shot at and wounded. However the veteran is good-humored about his time as a POW.
“They tied my hands behind my back, I waited and crawled away at night. Fun was had by all,” Talbot laughed.
Talbot was awarded a Purple Heart for his time in Vietnam in 1967 to 1968, when he was wounded, captured and escaped. The museum marks a huge shift in veteran support compared to when Talbot said he and other Vietnam veterans came back home.
“When we came home, veterans were not treated well,” Talbot said. “I like the way they're treating vets now because I've seen it the other way. These people fight for us and defend us so we don't have to.”
The museum features hundreds of items from antique military weapons to uniform displays. Memorabilia, war time posters, military patches, medals, armor, newspaper clippings, books and letters dating back from the Civil War to Desert Storm were also on display. Incoming displays include artifacts from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photo and military honors displays of of local veterans lined the exhibit walls, telling the tales of hundreds of people who served from Northwest Indiana.
The displays were the result of Lake Central High School teacher Tom Clark, who also serves as the museum curator, and his students collecting artifacts for more than 33 years as part of a Gold Star project. While the exhibits were packed with items, Clark said what's displayed is only 20 percent of his total collection.
“They're not just reading history,” Clark said. “They're writing and recording history. Especially for this area, Northwest Indiana is loaded with some incredible history.”
Clark said over the years his and the students' research has uncovered surprising truths about the Region and the military.
“Students have made incredible connections with so many families,” Clark said. “The project has brought a lot of students out of their shells. I've had a lot of students unexpectedly go above and beyond because they made a connection and wanted to accomplish something that's meaningful.”
The first research project revealed that five Lake Central High School former students died in the Vietnam War and a memorial was held to honor them. The next year the group researched Vietnam War losses from all of Lake County.
“I thought maybe we'd find 40, but the total number was 261,” Clark said. “We were out there meeting the moms and dads. It was monumental.”
Marty Dzieglowicz of St. John, past Indiana state commander for the American Legion, said Lake County is the perfect spot for such a museum.
“Lake County and Marion County have the most saturated veteran population in the whole state,” Dzieglowicz said. “Lake County has over 40,000 veterans.”
The conception of the museum, which cost $58,000 to create, was a community effort with the Carpenters Union and various other local unions donated all of the labor and Hyre Electric and Schilling Lumber. Lake Central students also donated funds and volunteered during fundraisers.
Veterans organizations such as Military Order of the Purple Heart have supported the museum's creation. The organization has also agreed to house its removable memorial wall, which has names and photos of military members who have received a Purple Heart, inside the museum.
William Jarvis, executive director of the Tri-Town Safety Village in Schererville, said at least 200 were in attendance for the ribbon cutting.
“Especially with the cold weather, this just goes to show how much the community wants a veterans museum,” Jarvis said.
Jarvis said this is just the beginning; The ultimate plan is to build a museum that can be considered the “the Smithsonian of Northwest Indiana.”
Jarvis said organizers are talking to Schererville officials about acquiring a 50-acre plot along U.S. 30 for a museum and outside displays of military machinery such as helicopters and tanks.
“This is just a steppingstone for the future,” Jarvis said. “We're looking at having a museum that's 3,000 square feet and four levels. ... Mr. Clark has many more displays; all we can do now is rotate items. In the future we want all of it displayed every day.”