Eighteen years ago, the 6th Cavalry Museum in Fort Oglethorpe was on the brink of closing. The aging veterans who served in the 6th Cavalry, who started the museum and kept it open for years, were just not able to keep it going. The members were forced to sell off items not related to the unit itself to keep the lights on and the doors open. Enter Chris McKeever.
McKeever had moved to the Tennessee Valley in 1982 to escape the harsh winters of her home state of Michigan. Since then she had worked at the March of Dimes, Hutcheson Medical Center and Signal Centers. But a new opportunity was on the horizon — ne that would change her life and save an important community asset.
Kyle Russell was on the board of directors for the museum in 2005 when they realized a full-time executive director was needed if the museum was to succeed. Russell admits that in the beginning, he thought the job should go to a man — preferably a veteran with knowledge of the military. Once again, enter McKeever. “It turns out [military knowledge] can be learned,” Russell said of his first meeting with McKeever, “You need somebody that’s got a personality that can get people to donate, and Chris has that ability.” The offer was made and McKeever was named executive director of the 6th Cavalry Museum, a move Russell credits with saving the museum.
McKeever hit the ground running, although sometimes it seemed she was running in place. Without money coming in, the museum was struggling to be a place people wanted to visit — and without visitors, it was hard to get people to donate money. It was up to McKeever, working with museum board members, to break the vicious cycle, and that meant making contacts and convincing them that the museum was not only worth saving, but could emerge as a major historical depository and tourist attraction.
The first five years were spent cleaning and arranging the loose artifacts into a collection recognized as a museum. McKeever learned all she could about the Post, Fort Oglethorpe and the military units that called the area home. She took a vast collection of anecdotal stories and artifacts, researched each and assembled them into a cohesive story of farmland turned military post turned successful city.
“She has more energy than any one individual I’ve ever met,” said Durinda Cheek, current board chair. “She’s like the Energizer Bunny.” Early on, the Tucker Foundation was a patron of the museum, injecting much-needed capital into the project. Then Cheek recounts how miraculously, the Lyndhurst Foundation came into the picture with a grant. After we received other small grants, the board agreed to engage Community Consultants to work with the museum, build our base of support and apply for more and bigger grants. The board worked with McKeever to create the 1919 Club, where members donate $19 a month to help with operating expenses.
Over the years, McKeever and museum board members came up with creative ways of raising interest in and providing funding for the museum. World War II reenactments, fundraising banquets, Painting for a Purpose, School Days and Vintage Baseball games were all added to the offerings of the museum. Not only did the events raise money, they raised awareness. And McKeever grew to celebrity status in Fort Oglethorpe. “When you go anywhere with her in the community,” chuckles Cheek. “She knows everybody in the room, and they all come to speak to her.”
She has enlightened those who work for and live in the city of Fort Oglethorpe about their rich history. “Without her doing programs with the schools, the youth didn’t even know where they lived,” said City Council member and museum board member Paul Stinnett, adding “Chris has kept that alive with the museum and her school programs, with what she has presented at council meetings and all the tourism aspects.”
Just when the museum was hitting its stride in 2019, another battle would present itself. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down public attractions, the museum included. Just when there was a steady stream of visitors, the doors were closed for many weeks. During the two years of reduced foot traffic, McKeever used the time to explore new, high-tech ways to get the story of the 6th Cavalry and Fort Oglethorpe out.
The museum website became a primary point of contact, so it was re-designed. And modernized. McKeever applied for grants and created videos that could tell the story of the post and the soldiers who served here. McKeever was able to turn the pandemic slowdown into a new, exciting way to spread the story of the 6th Cavalry Museum worldwide using multimedia. She even made virtual tours available through live webcasts. Now she was not reaching only local schools, but the opportunity was there to share the story of Fort Oglethorpe around the world through the internet.
After 18 years of continued growth and success, it’s now time for McKeever to take a break. As hard as it will be to imagine the 6th Cavalry Museum without her buoyant, bubbly, can-do attitude, McKeever is ready to be a full-time grandmother and to do some traveling. Her last day as executive director was April 30.