ECW is pleased to welcome Wally Rueckel, co-founder and past president, and Mike Powell, current president and program chair, of the Brunswick Civil War Round Table (BCWRT) in Southport, North Carolina.
For several years, many Civil War roundtables have been losing members or, even worse, are no longer in existence. This is sad because we are losing the ability to keep the history of the American Civil War alive and passed down to future generations.
This is also surprising because a few Civil War roundtables—like BCWRT, with more than 1250 members in just 7 years since founding—have found ways to grow. What we want to discuss is the emergence of regional and national Civil War roundtable programs to bring together roundtable leaders from around the country to meet, get to know each other, network, and share best practices that might increase membership and revenues for their respective roundtables.
Tom O’Donnell and Wally Rueckel co-founded the Brunswick Civil War Round Table in January 2009. Tom was a retired executive with the Hersey Company who had handled problem situations in their factories. Wally was a partner in a private equity fund that invested in troubled companies and turned them around. Both of them, although in different businesses, had to work with people to develop solutions to make products, processes, and organizations run better.
They had both developed an interest in the Civil War late in life. Tom, surrounded by Civil War battlefields such as Gettysburg, joined several Civil War roundtables in Pennsylvania. Wally’s interest in the Civil War developed after he read Jeff Shaara’s Civil War novels and started attending roundtables in Illinois and, later, in Michigan. When they both moved to North Carolina, they met and attended roundtables in Wilmington and Raleigh, NC. Not liking the commute, Tom suggested they form a roundtable in Brunswick County.
They decided they needed a plan to recruit good volunteers to organize a roundtable open to men or women of any age, any level of Civil War knowledge, and any affiliation (Northerner or Southerner). Tom and Wally had probably attended ten roundtables by this time. They saw the problems the different groups had been having and also saw what had been working. Their business experience taught them to make changes if something wasn’t working and always be willing to try new ideas, so they decided to make several changes to what they saw as the basic “roundtable business model.” Starting their roundtable from scratch, the changes were not traumatic on the members.
They formed a planning committee including, in addition to Tom and Wally, a vice president of finance from a local 501(c)(3) tax exempt corporation; an retired advertising agency executive; three other executives with marketing and administrative skills; and a female former Civil War roundtable president; plus leaders associated with local history organizations such as the historical society, Maritime Museum, and a state historical site. They also relied quite a bit on two local well-regarded Civil War educators. Tom and Wally’s business experience taught them that having good active leadership was a must.
Initially, the board had five officer/directors and four at-large directors elected annually by members. With the rapid growth of BCWRT, we decided we needed more active leaders. We amended our by-laws to permit an unlimited number of advisors, affirmed by the directors, who can attend board meetings and engage in the board discussion but CANNOT vote. Today, we have 14 advisors and six of our current directors were previously advisors. We held our first meeting in May 2010.
Beginning in 2010, Wally started to try and network with other roundtables in North Carolina as well as the larger well-known roundtables throughout the country. On-line lists of roundtables were out of date, with many no longer active. He started searching for roundtable websites in the larger cities with some success, reading their online newsletters, trying to get their profile and contact info. Over the next couple of years, he began to send emails to the presidents of those roundtables, introducing himself and asking if they wanted to exchange electronically monthly newsletters and reciprocally post our websites links.
He began to form an impression of what was going on in these Roundtables and forming an opinion of how they were doing, also accumulating information like the frequency of their meetings, cost of membership, pre-meeting dinners, speakers, and anything unusual that BCWRT might try. A few started answering his phone calls, and they exchanged information. A couple even invited Mike and Wally to meet or talk with them. Many did not return our calls, though, because most of them had never heard of BCWRT.
In 2015, Wally decided to shift focus to North Carolina. He talked with Mike Powell, who was BCWRT president at the time, and told him of his idea to hold a Civil War roundtable forum for all of the North Carolina Roundtables. They thought they would invite all of the presidents and program chairs. We would meet at a central location, get to know each other, and discuss our respective problems and successes. We could discuss partnering for Civil War field trips, where two or more roundtables could share the cost of a bus and guide. Roundtable leaders could share info about the better speakers they’d had, and we wanted to suggest the possibility of developing “circuit rider speakers” that would visit two or more of our roundtables at our respective sites but on a single trip, thus reducing individual roundtable travel costs. Mike thought it was a great idea and we decided to proceed.
As we started to arrange this forum, we learned that no one had a complete list of the North Carolina Roundtables, their locations, or contact info for their presidents. So a good idea turned into a MAJOR research project. We contacted the NC leaders we knew and asked them for info; we researched the internet; we called college history departments; we asked speakers who spoke to our roundtables, etc. We discovered there were thirteen active roundtables in North Carolina.
We met in August 2016 at North Carolina History Museum in Raleigh for a day. We had 25 leaders attend, with twelve of the thirteen roundtables present. We got to know each other, discussed our respective roundtables, including our problems and successes. The forum was a success! For the first time, we were all talking to each other. Overwhelmingly, we voted to have another forum.
The second North Carolina forum was held in Raleigh on August 5, 2017. Again it was well attended, with twenty leaders present. Speaker topics included 1) ways to attract new members; 2) creating a speaker clearing house; 3) fund-raising ideas; 4) the BCWRT story. Once again, attendees unanimously voted to hold another forum in August 2018. An interesting outcome of the meeting was that five roundtables from surrounding southeast states learned of the forum and have asked to be invited in 2018.
After the 2017 North Carolina forum, Wally shared the results with John Bamberl and Mike Movius, presidents of the Scottsdale and Puget Sound roundtables, plus Matt Borowick, a writer for Civil War News. Mike Movius immediately said we need to do the same thing on a National basis—a CWRT Congress.
We started planning for the Civil War Congress and eventually agreed to hold it on September 16, 2017 in Centreville, VA, in conjunction with the Bull Run Civil War Round Table. The agenda was similar to the North Carolina forum, with the attendees getting to know each other followed by speakers that talked about increasing membership, fund raising, use of social media, and sharing best practices. Following the program the next day, there were battlefield tours.
The Congress was a great success, with 65 leaders from 41 roundtables from around the country. Participants came from the West Coast, Mid-West, New England, Washington, DC, and the Southeast. The next Round Table Congress is scheduled for August 2018 in Harrisburg Pa at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg Pa.
There was another offshoot of the 2016 North Carolina Civil War forum, too. When roundtables in Illinois and other Mid-Western States heard about the planned 2017 roundtable congress and the NC Civil War forum, they decided to hold a Midwest CWRT congress in Kenosha, WI, on July 22, 2017 at the local Civil War museum, with 48 attendees from throughout the Midwest.
Again it was a chance for roundtable leaders to meet and share ideas for improving attendance and revenues. An important takeaway from the Midwest CWRT congress was that the reported average attendance for most groups was between 20-40 attendees—most with static or declining attendance and most experiencing difficulty in filling leadership posts.
There is a tremendous opportunity to re-invigorate the health, growth, and financial stability of the Civil War roundtables to preserve the history and lessons learned from of the Civil War for future generations. We need to meet, get to know each other and share best practices to keep this history alive.