Every day is Veteran's Day
Society honors Rochester's military past
Chuck Baylis, founder and executive director of Rochester’s Military History Society at 250 Goodman St N, Anderson Alley, grew up with a collector. His mother collected 6,000 dolls and sewed extensive wardrobes for many of them. Baylis, too, collects dolls of a sort, but his are GI Joes, outfitted in military uniforms that span centuries, and they are only a small part of the society’s exhibits.
Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, the society, a museum of sorts, was created from Baylis’s personal collection of military artifacts and local memorabilia. As the collection has grown, families have donated their own military keepsakes from uniforms to wartime love letters.
“I’ve always been interested in the military,” says Baylis, who served as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam from 1963 to 1966. “I got to meet and work with a lot of WWII vets—very cool people.”
When he returned to the United States, Baylis studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and later opened a silk-screen house, printing artists’ serigraphs, including some from the late Ramon Santiago. Then he turned to computers, opening Sapphire Business Solutions in the same location his museum now occupies, and began to house his growing collection in the space.
Others have joined him in his dedication to military history, including interns Coby Gagliano and Jordan Perez and volunteers Tom Farnham and Ron Erwin.
On a Friday in August, Gagliano takes visitors on a tour beginning outside the museum’s entrance. He stops to show a piece of the Skoda 10.5cm Howitzer given to the City of Rochester by the Italian government in 1921. “The Italians were desperate for help against the Austrians,” says Gagliano, relating how Italy welcomed its native sons from Rochester into the U. S. or Italian armies and thanked them with the captured weapon. The “mostly original” cannon is today in downtown’s Washington Square Park.
Inside the museum, Enzo Vinci, eleven, dressed in Army fatigues and military boots, sits adjusting the cord on his helmet. Baylis says that Vinci wandered over from his father’s neighboring office when he was six years old and has continued to come back. “Enzo knows so much about the exhibits that he could lead a tour,” says Baylis. “He plans to apply to West Point one day.”
Baylis’s weapons exhibit contains guns from the Revolutionary War to the current Afghanistan conflict. Other shelves hold cannonballs and shells. In one display, GI Joe dolls are dressed in military uniforms from Spartan and Roman to an English cavalry solder in the Napoleonic Wars.
A “Made in Rochester” exhibit chronicles city businesses that supported wartime efforts—an Eastman Kodak WWI pocket camera, a WWII hand grenade, and a 35mm camera. Other artifacts are LRP (Long Range Patrol Rations) produced for the Vietnam war, a WWII M3 fighting knife, a Kodak infrared metascope, and a Stadimeter naval range finder. “I try to buy the unusual, something people generally don’t get to see,” Baylis says, pointing to a “JATO” pack, or jet-assist take-off packs that are small rockets fixed to the sides of heavy airplanes to give them more thrust. In another space, a Vietnam-era patrol river boat is under construction in 1/6 scale by a model shipwright club. When completed, the PRB will feature a fifty-calibre machine gun.
Rochester natives are represented throughout the museum. George N. Bliss, who received a Civil War Medal of Honor. John Beck, an Eastman School grad who played percussion in a Marine Corp band during the Eisenhower years. Women, too, are represented. Pearl Waxman was in charge of Red Cross canteens in Europe. Her “1945 wedding dress,” a.k.a blue wool military uniform, hangs on display. She’s joined by Dawn Seymour, an Air Force pilot. There’s Jeannie Perin Ross, who was the first nurse to enter Buchenwald, and Bianca Giangregorio, a nurse in Italy during the Battle of the Bulge.
In growing his collection, Baylis emphasizes the importance of sharing it with others. He periodically takes a sampling to Genesee Country Village & Museum as well as to gun shows and veterans groups.
“There’s no real place around here to see military history. Kids learn very little of American military history today,” Baylis adds. “We’d like to go into schools, but many won’t let us come in [citing safety issues].”
It’s true that in a draftless United States, the military remains at a distance for the majority of Americans. For others, discussion of military history seems like promotion of war.
“We don’t glorify war,” says Baylis. “We honor those who have served. It’s important that [children] understand why they have the freedoms they have.” As the society’s website proclaims, “Every Day is Veteran’s Day.” Rochestermilitary.com
Nancy O’Donnell is a freelance writer who is curious about everything.