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Conversations with newsmakers: Paul Galloway, executive director of the Airborne & Special Operation

Paul Galloway admits he never expected to return to Fayetteville.

Much less to be in charge of a museum that honors so many who call Fayetteville home.

But, as the retired rigger and medic likes to say, "I'm an Army guy. If you give me the time to learn, I can do just about anything."

The "anything" in this case is overseeing the Airborne & Special Operations Museum Foundation - a job that has the retired master sergeant speaking face to face with generals on a regular basis.

It's a job that can come with its odd moments, like the day he had those same generals snap together plastic Easter eggs.

"I was trying to convince them to host an Easter egg scramble at the museum," Galloway said. "Obviously, it was something we had never done before, and it certainly wasn't the traditional thing a military museum would do.

"But our foundation's role is to promote the museum. And part of that promotion is to attract people who have never been, who may have no tie to the military. We're looking for friends throughout our community.

"You've heard of fundraising? Well, this is friend-raising."

The idea, and the Easter eggs, have gone on to become one of the biggest events at the downtown Fayetteville museum.

This May, the museum will host the inaugural All-American Marathon. Galloway said he hopes the run will draw thousands of visitors to the museum, much as the Field of Honor and local Memorial Day observances will.

"I guarantee you that 99.4 percent of the people who visited the museum for the first time with their kids ... well, as soon as they walk into the lobby and see the guy hanging there with his parachute, they're sold. They'll come back again.

"Now they have a connection."

Galloway talked with staff writer Chick Jacobs about the museum, its exhibit growth and the need for volunteers. Here are excerpts:

Q: How do you work up the nerve to get generals to make Easter eggs?

A: It helps to believe in what you're doing. Plus, I don't believe in the status quo. I don't believe in doing something the same way because it's always been done that way.

Someone has to step up there and say, 'Hey, let's try this.' If it doesn't work, you just don't do it again.

Q: As the executive director and former Army guy, is it better to give orders or take them?

A: When you've got a staff as great as this one, it's much easier giving orders. I like to test people in different situations so both of us can learn what their strengths are. They may be naturally gifted in things they never thought of.

Q: How did you end up at the museum?

A: It's a long story, if I include the monkeys. I was career Army until my spine collapsed. I made it 26 years and took full retirement. But I wasn't ready to sit around, so I moved the family to Nashville, Tenn., where I got a history degree.

I was going to be a teacher but quickly discovered my back couldn't take standing in front of a class five days a week. I ended up as the director of volunteers at the zoo in Nashville - the head monkey, I called myself.

Family issues brought me back to Fayetteville. After having served here in the '70s and '80s, I didn't figure I'd ever be back here. But here we are. I looked around for something to do and ended up at the museum - again, in charge of volunteers.

Q: You became director in 2008. Since then, the museum has grown in both exhibits and visitors. How have you done it?

A: We have a board that is great at what it does. Our foundation works hard to connect in the community. And when people come to us with suggestions or if they didn't like something, we listen. You can look at our most recent additions, the Mogadishu exhibit and the salute to (Korean War Medal of Honor recipient) Rudy Hernandez, and see that our staff is first class. But above all, I credit our staff of volunteers.

Q: You call the volunteers the museum's "hidden exhibit." Why is that?

A: I just love our volunteers to death. The majority of them served our country, either in the armed forces or as a spouse. They bring a wealth of experiences to this place. They have so many stories to tell. All you have to do is ask a question, then pull up a chair and listen. It's just amazing.

Q: Do volunteers have to be retired military?

A: No, not at all. But many are, and they are the most dedicated bunch you'll ever meet. We've got volunteers in their 90s, and they just love it.

At first, I was reluctant. When I was in charge of volunteers at the zoo, everyone wanted to know when they could pet the tigers. So I figured here, everyone would want to shoot the tank or something.

But they've been a delight to work with. They keep me looking good, and just knowing all they have been through, it keeps me humble.

Of course, when I took over I said one of these days, we're going to have a bad year. Over the past few years, we've lost a lot of them to death or illness or having to move to be closer to family. At one time, we had more than 120 volunteers. Now it's closer to 60.

Like most nonprofits, we've got plenty of room for volunteers. And like any nonprofit, there's always opportunity.

You don't have to be a war hero. You just have to be able to tell a story - or listen to one. The stories that come into this place every day are just amazing. All they need is a good ear to hear them.

Join the conversation and share your voice.

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