Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas got more than a meal when he met with two Marine Corps officials for breakfast 15 years ago.
Christmas, who had just retired from active duty, was given a new job and a mission that would change the next decade of his life.
The Stafford resident was asked to become president and chief executive of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and spearhead a multimillion-dollar fundraising effort to bring the Marine Corps its first museum.
“We were looking for a great Marine and a great person,” said retired Lt. Gen. Philip Shutler, one of the officials at that breakfast. “He was a little bit surprised when we asked him but also pleased. If you look at his record, he knew everything about the Marine Corps and knew it well.”
Now, the man who helped preserve the Marines’ history by ensuring that the National Museum of the Marine Corps got built is ready to try retirement again and pass his duties to retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr.
“I don’t question my decision, but you always leave with mixed emotions,” said Christmas, 71. “I’ll probably go flunk retirement again somewhere . . . but I owe it to my family to give them some time. And it is always good to bring in new eyes.”
Christmas began his 34-year stint with the Marine Corps while at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1962, he joined the NROTC program and said it was the Marine officers who influenced his decision to become a Marine and leave for the first of many assignments after graduation.
“My ship was tied up in San Juan [for a mission], and I was standing on it, watching the sun go down into the emerald sea,” Christmas said of one of his first assignments. “I said to myself ‘I like this.’ The rest was history.”
Christmas served in numerous infantry command and staff assignments during his 30-plus-year career and earned several medals and decorations, including a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross for his service in Vietnam. Christmas was seriously wounded during the battle for Hue City, where he put himself in the middle of enemy fire to ensure that the battalion he commanded could safely complete its mission, Marine officials said.
Christmas, however, prefers to tout the Marine Corps’ history rather than his own, which is why he believed in building a museum that would display the Marines’ 65,000 artifacts and tell America’s history through the eyes of a Marine.
“Right down to his toes, he believed 100 percent in the need to make a national museum a reality,” said Susan Hodges, vice president of administration at the Heritage Foundation. “He worked day and night to get a team in place to make it happen. His sincerity and his dedication became infectious.”
New to the world of fundraising, Christmas reached out to Marines nationwide to raise about $60 million to get the museum built and operational.
“I took a dream and convinced people we needed to make it happen,” Christmas said. “I didn’t know a thing about fundraising . . . but I understood the dream, loved history and knew the importance of the legacy.”
So did others, he said.
Under Christmas’s leadership, the foundation reached its fundraising goal and opened the interactive museum. It has been a boon for the Prince William County region.
The museum, built on land donated by the county, was designed to put visitors in the boots of a Marine. People start their journey standing before a drill instructor. Other activities include piloting a plane in World War II and landing a helicopter during Vietnam.
“What he has done superbly well is create a geographical center for the spirit of the Marine Corps,” Shutler said. The museum “doesn’t let anyone forget what it’s like to be a Marine, and you can find General Christmas’s footprint and handprint on all the activities offered.”
The Heritage Foundation is conducting a $100 million fundraising campaign to expand the museum. Museum officials plan to add an Imax theater, more gallery space and a combat artist studio where people can watch artists work.
Christmas said that although he will stay with the foundation as an adviser to ensure the next phase of the museum is built, he also plans to spend more time with his wife, Sherry Lownds, their four children and 12 grandchildren.
“In addition to being a superb combat leader, Christmas has been a humble leader [for the foundation],” Shutler said. “It’s never been about Ron Christmas, but always about the people he is with. I am honored to have known him.”