A Conversation with Hallowed Ground‘s Mary Koik (part one)

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Koik, Mary(part one of a four-part series)

For Womens History Month this year, ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski interviewed several women who work in the field of Civil War public history. This week, we share Chriss conversation with Mary Koik, editor of Hallowed Ground, the member magazine for the Civil War Trust. She also does freelance work on marketing- and communications-related issues for organizations with history-related missions. The transcript of their interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chris Mackowski: How did you get where you’re at?

Mary Koik: It’s been several decades coming, I guess! I was one of those kids growing up who was a history buff from as long as my parents can remember. I was a little girl in New England who was somehow fixated on the Civil War. I’m not really sure how it happened but that’s as far back as anyone can remember. I’m sure I watched some of the Ken Burns documentary when it was on PBS initially. I probably only caught pieces of it because I would have been eight at the time. I also remember being upset that we couldn’t go see Gettysburg in a theater because it wasn’t playing anywhere close enough. 

CM: I had that problem. I was working in Bangor, Maine, at the time and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born right in that area, but they weren’t showing Gettysburg in the theater and there was a huge uproar about it.

MK: That seems like a huge oversight. Central Connecticut might be less so, but in Maine, that seems like there was a natural audience they failed to consider! (laughs)

But I was just a lifelong history buff. The Civil War was always my thing, but I’ve got other periods and eras that I have an affinity for, too. I grew up and went to college and the joke was that I was “supposed to be a journalist.” I was the editor of my college newspaper and figured I was going to go off and do that, but I decided in about 2004, when I graduated from college, that print journalism wasn’t exactly a growth industry. So I got a job at a contract-editing firm and did some pretty dry work on projects for the World Bank and U.N., like the Millennium Development Goals. It wasn’t very riveting stuff—very important, but not something I was passionate about.

But a friend of one of my older brothers saw a job at the Civil War Trust was open and emailed it to my brother to pass along to me. It was not a writing job or anything like that, but in grassroots activism, which back fifteen years ago was pretty different than it is now. Facebook only existed at something like fifteen colleges at the time, so this was old school: knocking on doors and yard signs and leaflets and things like that. I had a lot of experience mustering volunteers. I had an all-volunteer newspaper staff in college.

Funny enough, anyone is always willing to hire someone that’s a good writer. That’s a universal truth. So I got that job doing a lot of work in policy and communications at the Trust.

About a month after I started was when the first Gettysburg casino proposal was announced, so I was thrown in the deep end pretty quickly on that and was involved in a lot of grass roots things—that, and the tail end of the First Day at Chancellorsville fight, people trying to build those big developments out there.

So I kept going and persevering, and the woman who edited the Trust’s membership magazine at that point was working part-time, from home while caring for her kids. But eventually she decided that wasn’t working for her, so she was going to leave the organization. I was 25 and Jim Lighthizer [the CEO of the Civil War Trust] said to me, “You seem like you could handle this. Are you up for running a magazine?”

It was terrifying and a huge learning experience. Fast forward ten years now, and I haven’t sunk it, so I think we did okay.

CM: I think that’s about the time we first met, around one of those Chancellorsville projects.

MK: It is. We go way back.

CM: I remember planting trees out at the Day One battlefield.

MK: I actually snuck a picture from one of those tree plantings into the winter issue of Hallowed Ground, where everyone on the staff was reminiscing about their memories for the 30th anniversary year. I don’t think anyone will ever forget being out there and trying to plant 2,000 trees along the side of Route 3 in Spotsylvania.

CM: Well, if it’s any consolation, one of the places I go jogging in the evenings is on that Day One path, so I run through those trees a couple times a week now.

MK: Some things really help drive home the passage of time, and trees that you helped plant not looking like twigs anymore is probably one of them. (both laugh)

CM: So let me back up to something you said a moment ago. When you were in college, did you major in history or in journalism?

MK: I went to Georgetown, which is a liberal arts school, and they don’t believe in the “pre-professional majors,” so I was a double-major in English and history. In the way that I chose the courses I was taking, it was really almost a literary history degree, the intersection of true stories and how we tell them.

I love American history, but it’s not just that. I was, in college, very close to being a classical studies major. Little-known fact: I took Latin and ancient Greek, because I thought that was fun. Not a whole lot of people have translated Euripides after staying up all night proofreading their college newspaper.

Like I said, I’m a huge history person and some of the greatest classes I took were not necessarily American history, but like “history and legend in medieval history. That was pretty awesome stuff, talking about exactly where the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur came from. There are actual sources for these things, and you could see how they got embellished over time and what sources we can trust.

CM: I see similar parallels today, when people look at a Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson and, where does the truth end and the embellishment begin, and how do we remember them in the way we do?

MK: Exactly. I think that’s fascinating, but you want to go to primary sources and see what people talked about in their letters and things, and even who they were writing to. Is the story of their action in a battle being told to their supervisors or is it to their wife back home? Who are they trying to impress? What are they trying to downplay? It’s fascinating that even when looking at a primary source, you have to think about the motivation behind it, too.

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In tomorrows segment, Chris and Mary talk more about Hallowed Ground and the changes Mary has overseen during her tenure as editor.