VICKSBURG — Terry Winschel came to Vicksburg for a job and says he found a home.
Winschel was a 22-year-old seasonal ranger just a few months out of college when he reported to the Vicksburg National Military Park in 1977.
This week he will retire, after 35 years in federal service, most of it spent at the VNMP, where he rose to become one of the most senior historians in the National Park Service and sexton of the National Cemetery.
“He is probably the most genuine person you would ever meet,” said Rick Martin, VNMP chief operations officer, who has known Winschel for 30 years. “I’ve never met anybody like him. There’s nothing hidden with Terry, no hidden agendas with him. He’s loyal to a fault. God is first in his life, (followed by) his family and his job.”
“It’s hard to sum Terry up in a few words,” said park Superintendent Mike Madell. “And on top of it, he’s such a nice person.”
As Madell, Martin and the rest of the staff prepare for the 2013 sesquicentennial of Vicksburg’s role in the Civil War, they will “sorely miss” Winschel, they said.
“Terry’s an amazing person,” Madell said. “He’s forgotten more about the war in this area and the Siege of Vicksburg than most people will ever know.”
“It is going to be such a loss to the park, to the National Park Service and to us, the public,” said former Superintendent Bill Nichols.
“It’s time,” Winschel said simply. “I’m greatly saddened to be hanging up my Stetson. It’s the only thing I’ve ever known. I’m going to truly miss getting up every morning, putting on my uniform and coming to work, but I’m deeply excited about what the future holds in store for me.”
Winschel, 57 next month, said he wants to get back to the reasons he joined the park service — sharing history with people. He’ll lead commercial tours and programs, research and write and spend time with his family. He and his wife, Therese, have three children — Jenny, Bert and Evan, and a 4-year-old grandson, Donovan.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., Winschel was 12, he said, when he knew he wanted to be a National Park Service ranger. His father, a banker and World War II veteran, was a “real Civil War buff” who took his family on summer vacations to battlefields in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
“When I was in school I tried for years to get a job with the park service,” Winschel said.
His dream was to become superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park.
“I offered to work for free — just give me a job,” he said. “Kept getting these rejection letters — I was too young, I was too young, I was too young. I was bothering them for years.”
At 18, he applied again and got a different letter, telling him that for the first time in years the licensed battlefield guide test was being given at Gettysburg, along with Vicksburg, the only two national military parks authorized to have a licensed guide service.
He jumped at the chance, passed the test and spent the Bicentennial summer giving tours of Gettysburg. That led to a job as a seasonal ranger there.
“The day I graduated from college in 1977, my parents and I drove straight to Gettysburg, and I went to work the next day,” he said.
A few months later he landed a winter seasonal position at the VNMP — “I absolutely fell in love with the place,” he said — followed by seasonal appointments at Fredericksburg Va., and Valley Forge. Pa, In the fall of 1978, he landed a permanent position in Vicksburg.
“And I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
He and Therese married in 1981, the kids came along and Winschel moved up the ladder at the VNMP. He earned master’s and educational specialist degrees from Mississippi College. Every chance he could while on duty and off, he read about the Vicksburg Campaign and combed through the park’s archives, devouring the history of the war and the park.
When Nichols arrived in 1984, he found a relatively low-level ranger, in terms of government status, who’d made himself an expert.
“It didn’t take long, working with Terry, to recognize his love of history, his love of the siege campaign of Vicksburg, his energy, his passion and his willingness to share it,” Nichols said.
In 1988, Nichols re-established the park historian position, vacant since Ed Bearss became national NPS historian in the 1960s, and put Winschel in it.
“If he has one flaw, it’s that he’s so enthusiastic about what he does, the story and making sure the memories of Vicksburg stay alive, that sometimes you have to rein him back in,” said Madell.
“If you send him out on a tour with a group that’s got two hours, his challenge is to pace himself so that they’re most of the way through the park in two hours. Without much exaggeration, he could probably lead a weeklong, if not longer, tour here. If you have the energy to keep up with him, you wouldn’t be bored.”
Winschel’s “institutional memory” — park lands acquired, when and from whom, easements, the history and layout of the cemetery — have been important to the day-to-day VNMP management, said Nichols and Madell.
“He’s the cultural historian of the park,” said Nichols. “He knows the park, the history, the administrative history, everything about those 113 years that make the park what it is today.”
As cemetery sexton, Winschel played a key role in sorting out decades-old record-keeping gaps and solving the mystery of 13 unmarked graves discovered there in 2010.
Winschel is proud of additions to the VNMP that have been made during his tenure, such as Pemberton’s Headquarters; the Grant’s Canal site across the Mississippi River in Delta, La., which literally required an act of Congress; and “a score of other parcels,” he said.
New monuments have been dedicated and the effort has begun to incorporate into the VNMP outlying battlefields that were part of the Vicksburg Campaign, such as Port Gibson, Champion Hill and Raymond.
“We must always keep faith with the veterans, who not only fought here but by whom this park was established,” he said.
The position of park historian will be posted and filled, Madell said, but Winschel can’t be replaced.
“The one thing I will stress to that (new) person is that they are not replacing Terry,” Madell said. “They are not going to be ‘the new Terry,’ they will be whoever they are, and I hope that the community we work with will give him or her a chance to get up to speed.”
“There will never be another Ed Bearss, there will never be another Terry Winschel,” Martin said. “But there will be people that come behind them, and they’ll make their own niche, and they’ll do a great job. That’ll be my job and the job of others in the park to help that person get going.”