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Curator collects the artifacts to tell the proud history of the 1st Division
By Susan Dibble | Daily Herald Staff

Terri Navratil, curator of collections at the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton, stands in the main exhibit hall that simulates World War I battlefield conditions at Cantigny, France.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Terri Navratil, right, helps unwrap the World War II landing craft, the Higgins boat, which will be dedicated on June 6.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Curator Terri Navratil looks over World War I uniforms stored in the basement of the First Division Museum. Military items were made to last so the uniforms are in excellent condition, she said.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

This scene in the main exhibit hall at the First Division Museum shows Allied forces landing on the coast of Normandy in World War II.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Curator Terri Navratil stands near the vaults where many of the museum's 12,000 artifacts are stored. About 5 percent of the collection is on exhibit at any one time.

 

Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/20/2009 12:01 AM

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If you go

The following events will be held at First Division Museum at Cantigny, 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton. For details, call (630) 668-5161.

• 3 p.m. May 24: The Steve Cooper Orchestra performs in front of the First Division Museum.

• 3 p.m. May 25: First Division Military Band presents its Memorial Day performance in front of the First Division Museum.

• 3 p.m. May 31: Navy Band Great Lakes performs in front of First Division Museum.

• 7:30 p.m. June 3: Historian Flint Whitlock speaks on his book "The Fighting First: The Untold Story of the Big Red One on D-Day"

• 1 to 3 p.m. June 4: "History Alive: Revolutionary War" with activities for kids. History Alive events continue every Thursday through Aug. 27.

• 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 6: D-Day + 65 years. Commemorative ceremony at 10 a.m., landing craft dedication at 11 a.m. and American Legion Band at 2 p.m. World War II veterans lunch from 12:30 to 3 p.m.; call (630) 260-8130.

Terri Navratil didn't know about boats.

But when the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton purchased a World War II landing craft known as a "Higgins boat," Navratil, the museum's curator of collections, oversaw the restoration efforts.

A year and a half of research and close coordination with the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, N.C., which did the actual restoration work has returned the 1943 craft to what it looked like when such vessels were used to deliver soldiers to the beaches of Normandy during the Allied invasion of Europe. Fewer than a dozen of the landing craft are known to exist today.

"Terri was in charge of that effort and did a terrific job," said Paul Herbert, executive director of the Cantigny First Division Foundation.

The Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) - as the vessel was formally called - will be dedicated June 6 during a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of D-Day. World War II and D-Day veterans will be honored, the American Legion Band will perform, and World II re-enactors give a glimpse of living history.

A bit to her chagrin, Navratil will not be there. Her daughter is getting married that day.

"I'm kind of upset because we have so many things going on here," she said. "The landing craft is going to be here. It's my pride and joy. I'm going to miss all the people being so excited to see the landing craft."

The restoration of the Higgins boat is one of the biggest projects the Naperville resident has headed in her nearly nine years as curator. But Navratil has plenty to keep her busy at the museum dedicated to the famed 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, popularly known as the Big Red One for the red numeral worn on soldier's shoulder patch.

Col. Robert McCormick, the late publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a veteran of the First Division, named his Wheaton estate Cantigny after the village in France where Americans won their first victory in World War I.

The Fighting First has seen plenty of action since then. The Army's first permanent and continuously serving division, it has seen action in all American conflicts since 1917 except the Korean War. As curator, it's Navratil's job to collect and preserve the artifacts that tell that story.

"I'm responsible for all the three-dimensional objects," Navratil said. "We have about 12,000."

As is typical of other museums, the First Division facility exhibits only about 5 percent of its artifacts at a time, Navratil said. The rest must be carefully documented and stored.

She admits it was a daunting task at first.

"I was probably a little overwhelmed with the wide scope of the collection," Navratil said. "The history part of it, I'm very comfortable with. The military part has been really interesting to learn about because it's very specific knowledge."

The collection includes everything from an outdoor park with a dozen tanks (most of them on loan from the Army) to art work. Navratil has learned about uniforms, insignia and weapons. She's also in charge of the running historic vehicle program that participates in parades.

Right now, First Division volunteers are building a World War I Liberty truck from the parts of several of the vintage vehicles.

"It will be exciting in a local parade to have a World War I Liberty truck," Navratil said. "Every doughboy in France would know a Liberty truck."

Also under restoration is a UH-1 or Huey helicopter, well-known for its use during the Vietnam War.

Navratil has talked to a vet who told her what it felt like to fly a Huey. Taking full advantage of every opportunity to learn about veterans and the military, she attends First Division veterans' reunions, has visited the division's headquarters in Ft. Riley, Kan., and taken classes at military museums and in collection management.

She is a stickler for getting it right, Herbert said. "Terri has very high professional standards. She understands what a curator is supposed to do and she moves heaven and earth to be sure we do it correctly," he said.

After growing up on a farm in western Illinois, Navratil earned an undergraduate degree in history and a law degree before getting into museum work. While raising her three children in Naperville, she volunteered at Naper Settlement and worked part-time at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle before applying for the position at Cantigny.

Since coming to the First Division Museum, she has worked to expand and document the collection. Herbert said she's led a three-year effort to do a wall-to-wall inventory of the artifacts and create a database that makes it easier to knows what the museum has and what it needs.

Items are photographed and many may now be seen on the museum's Web site at firstdivisionmuseum.org. "We've put about 1,600 online," Navratil said.

About 50 items are donated every other month, she said. Navratil assures veterans their treasures will be looked after well, and makes recommendations to find homes for items that do not fit the collection. Currently, she is working to increase the collection from 1970 to the present.

The museum draws about 110,000 visitors a year, including 20,000 schoolchildren. Navratil wants to expand its reach.

"I think military museums are a little ignored in the museum field," she said.

First Division's main exhibit hall immerses visitors in what it must have felt like to be in the trenches in World War I France, and tells the story of the division's role in subsequent wars in interactive exhibits. Downstairs, the museum houses a Research Center and monthly lectures are offered on military history.

Children can climb on the tanks outdoors, and visitors tour the McCormick home, gardens and park. Summer concerts are held on the lawns.

Funded by the McCormick Foundation, Cantigny offers admission to the grounds and museum for only a $5 parking fee, or $2 on Mondays and before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

"We have such an idyllic setting. I call it our piece of paradise," Navratil said. "I think we have something for everyone here,"

Navratil said her own work at the First Division Museum has changed her. The daughter and granddaughter of military veterans, she also saw a son in the Marines Reserves go to war for seven months in Iraq. Then her job was almost too much of a reminder of the danger he was in, she said.

"It makes me more proactive. If I see a service person, I go up and say thank you for your service," she said.

• Do you know someone with an unusual job or hobby? Let us know at sdibble@dailyherald.com, (630) 955-3532 or 4300 Commerce Court, Lisle, 60532.