Alumni Profile: Tom Czekanski
Remembering a World at War
Of the 90,000 artifacts housed at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Tom Czekanski '82 occasionally reflects upon a helmet worn by an 18-year-old sailor. It has a bullet hole on the left side.
"We learned from his cousin that his shipmates cleaned the helmet, and then gave it to his parents," said Czekanski, director of collections and exhibits. "They put it on a mantle, and that's how they remembered their only child until the day they died. It's one of the more moving pieces that remind us that freedom isn't free."
Since 2004, Czekanski, who earned a B.A. in humanities from UTSA, has been responsible for all collections and exhibits at the museum and oversees a staff of seven curators. The museum displays an array of memorabilia, including a World War II suitcase radio used by Allied agents who operated behind enemy lines; an Italian officer's mess kit complete with cheese grater, bottles for oil and vinegar, and steel stove; and a 1917 A1 machine gun that could fire between 450 to 600 rounds per minute.
"One of the most exciting things is meeting veterans," the director said. "I had a visitor today who was a PT [patrol torpedo] boat sailor. It's interesting to meet these people and talk about their experiences. You can see they're excited to see the equipment, like a plane they flew in or truck they drove. Lots of old memories come back for them."
The National World War II Museum honors the more than 16 million Americans who took part in the global confrontation. It presents their stories to an international audience, preserves artifacts for research and encourages future generations to apply the lessons learned from the war, according to the official website.
Out of the thousands of items on display, Czekanski said his favorite is an American M4 Sherman tank used by the Army and Marine Corps and most Allied nations. "It's a kick to be able to drive it when we move it around the grounds," he said.
A majority of museum items are donated by veterans or from their children and relatives. Uniforms and other memorabilia, for instance, were shipped home in trunks. "If we want a big tank or war plane, we have to buy one," he said. "People didn't take them home with them."
Czekanski always had an interest in World War II, he said, because his father, who was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, his uncle, who served with the 2nd Armored Division, and an aunt, who was in the Coast Guard, were all involved in the war.
Czekanski was hired by the museum in 2000 as its collections manager, where he processed all donations and kept track of inventory. He was promoted to collections and exhibits director in 2004.
Czekanski is a frequent guest on Inside the Vault, a multimedia series produced by the museum as part of its educational efforts offered to the public. With his wealth of knowledge, he explains the history, background and details of many of the museum's pieces, such as the German le.IG 18 75 mm infantry gun.
"This gun was a direct outgrowth of Germany's interpretation of the tactical lessons they learned from World War I. You need a machine gun that is an all-purpose piece … and the infantry needs artillery support under their direct control. … So the German army developed this gun," Czekanski tells host Ron Gural in an episode. "It was intended to be in the field, on the front line and to be advanced by hand by a crew of six."
"Having a broader based humanities degree has helped me to integrate all these aspects for successful exhibit presentation."
In another episode, the director discusses Nazi uniforms worn by non- German soldiers fighting for the Nazis. "[These were worn by] units composed of people from occupied countries who volunteered, sometimes under a little duress on their part," Czekanski explained. "But they volunteered for service in the German army. Their primary goal was to fight communism."
When the museum opened its doors on June 6, 2000—the 56th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that led to the liberation of Europe—it began with only a small staff. Today, about 200 people assist with the daily operations; and more than 2 million visitors have walked through its doors.
A constant challenge, Czekanski said, is to find enough space to hold the thousands of items the National World War II Museum continues to accumulate. And although the museum was fortunate to suffer only minor damage from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the disasters forced the closure of the facility for several weeks, which affected tourism.
Born in Germany, Czekanski, 50, moved to Texas at age 12 when his father retired here. While studying at UTSA, he joined the ROTC and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves. He went on active duty after graduating and was stationed at Fort Hood, where he was a cartographic platoon leader, making maps.
Czekanski recalls history professor Robert W. Patch, now teaching at the University of California Riverside, who made classes especially stimulating.
"I enjoyed him as a teacher [so much] that I took four or five classes with him," Czekanski said. "He had a slightly nontraditional teaching approach that I found appealing. For instance, in a class on the history of revolutions, we looked at what music [the] revolutionaries were singing at the time."
Czekanski believes his degree in humanities has proved beneficial in his career in the museum field. For example, he finds that other museum professionals who have history degrees can become too focused on the text in an exhibit to tell the story.
"The presentation of an exhibit is multidimensional using text, artifacts, images, film and theatrical effects to tell the story," Czekanski said. "Having a broader based humanities degree has helped me to integrate all these aspects for successful exhibit presentation."