War Party Planner
To Oversee a Tribute to the 'Greatest Generation,' Organizers Tap an Eclectic Scholar
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2004; Page C01
Jim Deutsch was explaining that elusive concept called "America" to the well-bundled inhabitants of a Norwegian island last March -- polar bears loose on the snow, sunlight striking the steeple of the local church for the first time in months -- when he received word, by e-mail, that he would have a different job this spring. He would be the chief curator of the big party this week for the World War II generation.
Only in Washington are parties curated.
And now here he is, toiling in a cluttered cubicle decorated with a pinup of an Andrews Sisters tribute trio and a can of Spam. Trudging around the Mall -- the weather considerably warmer than in Norway -- checking out the layout of giant tents, fretting about the availability of water and grief counselors.
About 800,000 visitors are expected for the four-day festival starting Thursday that will accompany the dedication of the National World War II Memorial. There will be a pavilion for veterans to pass on stories to younger generations, another for military units to reunite, another for learning how to preserve heirlooms of the era, another for kids to try breaking codes and writing "V-Mail," and two more for period music and dancing.
"We want to make people aware of what it was like," says Deutsch, 55. "The second challenge is to do something meaningful for this generation. The reunion was to bring them together, pay tribute to them and have a good time."
No doubt there will be tears, too, hence the platoon of 40 grief counselors.
For a part-time professor with a taste for postwar film noir, whose previous jobs have included Census enumerator, bookmobile driver and monorail operator, this assignment made perfect sense. After a three-decade professional life where, by his choice, jobs rarely lasted more than a year, Deutsch was given an apt title by the Norwegians: roving scholar. His favorite subject: America. Sitting in his cubicle on the fourth floor of an obscure building in Chinatown, he scrolls through a list of names from the World War II generation that he began compiling in Norway. These are the people who will be having conversations with each other and with the public in the Wartime Stories pavilion.
Ernest Borgnine, Bob Dole, George McGovern, Ossie Davis, Howard Zinn, Bob Feller, Norman Mineta, Al Neuharth, Jack Palance, Alan Simpson, Mike Wallace . . .
A colleague leans over the top of the cubicle to report that Idella Ford, a World War II nurse who was to be in the program, may not be well enough. And Borgnine, who was a sailor in the war before he joined "McHale's Navy," may be busy with another project.
Hmm. Deutsch already knows Kurt Vonnegut, Yogi Berra and J.D. Salinger are unavailable -- he tried them. Walter Cronkite, Artie Shaw and Patty Andrews will be present via recorded interviews.
What about Tony Curtis?
Next he opens an e-mail from the owner of a Piper L-4 who lives on Capitol Hill. Deutsch wants him to land the vintage World War II reconnaissance plane on the Mall -- but the Secret Service is not enthusiastic.
What about trucking in the aircraft and reassembling it on the Mall?
Deutsch loves sweating such details. "We're not ivory tower academics," he says of the curatorial team. "We like to get our hands dirty and our boots muddy."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"We want to make people aware of what it was like," says Jim Deutsch, who will oversee this week's celebration of America's World War II generation.
(Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
World War II Remembered: Recalling a distant, indelible time.
Panoramic Photo: Washington's newest landmark opens.
Video: Workers put on the final touches.
Photo Gallery: A complex story told with straightforward conviction.
Panorama: Design Details
Memorial Map and Layout
_____From The Post_____
An Iraq Pledge to Watch Closely (The Washington Post, May 29, 2004)
SATURDAY (The Washington Post, May 29, 2004)
A Very Big Band of Brothers (The Washington Post, May 29, 2004)
Memory Illuminated (The Washington Post, May 28, 2004)
A 17-Year Campaign For a Lasting Tribute (The Washington Post, May 28, 2004)
WWII Memorial Report