JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Gettysburg National Military Park is hallowed ground where, in 1863, thousands of Americans “gave the last full measure of devotion” to preserve their nation.
It covers about 6,000 acres.
There are more than 1,300 monuments and memorials, spots where pivotal events in the county’s history occurred, graves of unknown soldiers, and the immortal words of President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” still echoing through the generations.
Richard Schroeder and Fran Feyock can speak about those locations and people with encyclopedic-like knowledge. And they have turned their passion about the park – and the Battle of Gettysburg – into rewarding and challenging part-time jobs.
This summer, both passed Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides exams, meaning they are among the few individuals accredited to give tours of the historic site where Union and Confederate forces clashed in the bloodiest and one of the most important Civil War battles.
Feyock, of Westmont, became the 579th tour guide in the 101-year history of the ALBG. Schroeder is the 581st.
“The only thing that’s there at the battlefield that was there at the time of the battle is the ground, so you have to walk on the ground,” Schroeder, a Southmont Borough resident, said. “And, for Fran and I, we get the honor and the privilege of talking about what these men did in a legacy that’s been going on for 101 years.”
Becoming guides links the two friends to their ancestors who experienced the famous battle firsthand.
One of Feyock’s relatives, Edward Stork, was on the Union’s June 30, 1863, muster roll. Stork, who was in the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, was buried at Sandyvale Cemetery in Johnstown.
Schroeder’s family lived in Gettysburg when the conflict occurred.
“I found out since I got interested in this that my great-great grandfather was a farmer on the battlefield of Gettysburg and his house was a Confederate hospital,” Schroeder said.
“Just to kind of bring it full circle, my mother passed away and my father moved into an assisted living facility. We were cleaning out their basement, and lo and behold – I didn’t know my mom had this – we found the family Bible of my great, great grandfather in the basement of my folks’ home.
“And so, for me, that kind of brings it full circle back to the battlefield and my family’s connection.”
The test to become a guide is challenging.
Applicants must engross themselves in the history of the battle and the park: from the soldiers’ movements to the location of all major monuments. They must pass a test – with fill-in-the-blank and essay questions – before being interviewed and then giving their own two-hour presentation while driving evaluators on a tour throughout the area.
It takes countless hours of preparation: reading, visiting the site, talking with experts, and, in Feyock’s case, training with the Johnstown Toastmasters.
“The process is really arduous,” Schroeder said. “I’m an orthopedic surgeon (with Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center), and this was as hard – or harder – than getting board certified as an orthopedic surgeon.”
But the rewards are great, too.
Feyock, who has given about 50 tours so far, recalled emotionally seeing a little American girl, whose parents were born in China, placing a flower at the grave of an unknown soldier.
“That’s what you get out of it,” said Feyock. “So now all that pain that we went through to get this done and asking questions and a million things, it’s that that makes it different.
“People at work tell me, ‘Why do you do that?’ People thank you at work. Man, down there, it’s a different thank you. It’s a different thank you.”
No one-size-fits-all presentation suffices.
Guides must be able to adapt their tours to different individuals: history buffs, scholars, families with children, military personnel, people who want to learn about their state’s contributions to the battle, and many other types of visitors.
Merely reciting dry historical facts is not acceptable. Guides must personalize their talks in order to engage their audiences.
“You have all these facts in you, and then when you take people out on the tour, you have to forget them, because it’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Feyock, an executive director of surgical services manager in Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center’s anesthesia department, said. “If you’re not careful, you’ll just (drown them).
Telling stories of heroism and camaraderie can help engage guests.
“That’s what hooks people,” Schroeder said. “I can numb people with numbers forever, but it’s telling the stories about the 19-, 20- and 21-year-old guys from Ebensburg who fought in the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves that hooks people from our neck of the woods. It’s fun.”
Schroeder added: “The fun is adapting the tour to the visitors and what they want.”
The overall goal, as Feyock explained, is to “connect them to the battlefield, shrink the distance of time, make them care.”
Giving tours can be a growing process – both intellectually and emotionally – for the guides, too.
The job has helped Feyock develop a better understanding of the connection between generations of Americans from those who participated in the decisive Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg to the passengers who fought to bring down United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It starts to change you a little bit,” Feyock said. “Pickett’s Charge is always the highlight of it. I’m getting a lot better now.
“You start to realize it wasn’t a North-South thing. It was an American thing. The guts it took for those soldiers to come across that field is the same guts that it took them to bring the plane down in Shanksville, and I tell them that.”
Schroeder encourages local residents to come share the intellectual and emotional Gettysburg experience by contacting him or Feyock to set up a tour.
“It’s just great to take people out from Johnstown,” Schroeder said. “Johnstown has a great appreciation of history. We have to. There aren’t a lot of Johns-town connections – Johnstown proper – at Gettysburg. But there’s Somerset, there’s Bedford, there’s Ebensburg, there’s Indiana, there’s Greensburg.
“There are a lot of local connections to the battlefield from this area.”
Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com