August 2, 2005: Headlines: COS - Korea: Museums: Lincoln Journal Star: Korea RPCV Kyle Kopitke builds National Korean War museum in Nebraska

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Korea: Peace Corps Korea : The Peace Corps in Korea: August 2, 2005: Headlines: COS - Korea: Museums: Lincoln Journal Star: Korea RPCV Kyle Kopitke builds National Korean War museum in Nebraska

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Korea RPCV Kyle Kopitke builds National Korean War museum in Nebraska

Korea RPCV Kyle Kopitke builds National Korean War museum in Nebraska

Despite having no endowment, no serious financial backers and no formal training as a historical curator, Kopitke continues to seek donations from veterans and their families under the pretense his museum is professional and stable, Barker said. Barker said he doubts Kopitke is getting wealthy from his work, especially in Oxford. After spending years raising money for the Washington memorial, Barker said there just aren't any big-dollar benefactors for the Korean War. In response, Kopitke said he agrees fund-raising is a struggle, but his museum displays 5,000 items related to the war, making it the largest collection of its kind in the country. Nearly all were donated by veterans and their families.

Korea RPCV Kyle Kopitke builds National Korean War museum in Nebraska

Museum developer promotes history trail

BY JOE DUGGAN / Lincoln Journal Star

Caption: A vintage set of U.S. Marine Corps dress blues and an A-frame Korean backpack are among the items curator Kyle Kopitke has on display in the 38 galleries of the National Korean War museum in Oxford. (Eric Gregory)

Live in a small community with a declining population and limited economic prospects? Got a vacant school or nursing home? Kyle Kopitke has a pitch for your town.

Nelson heard the pitch and ran with it.

The farming community of 600 is the kind of place that gets a rare, accidental tourist.

Most people motoring on Nebraska 14 roll past Nelson without a second look on their way north to Hastings, south to Kansas.

But Kopitke says he can help Nelson attract tourists who will come to town with a purpose.

In late September, Kopitke and the city of Nelson plan to open the Vietnam War National Museum in the former high school.

They want to attract outside money to town, honor veterans and fill an empty building that has irritated the community's pride like an unhealed wound.

But when it gets right down to it, hope is the real reason Nelson wants to become the unlikely home for a national Vietnam War museum. Taking the risk and giving the project a try shows residents haven't given up hope for their community.

If Kopitke can sell anything, it's hope.

Through the years, he has accumulated a long list of buyers. And while most find his ideas appealing, some say he has a troubling past of failing to follow through.

For at least six years, the former suicide-prevention counselor has told Korean War veterans in at least three states they stood up to communism and won the Forgotten War. With their help and donations, he pledged to build them a national museum to honor their service, sacrifice and fallen brothers.

In February 2004, he opened the National Korean War Museum in an open-air metal hut on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Seven months later, the modest displays of uniforms, medals and Korean War memorabilia were put into storage after a messy, court-ordered foreclosure.

Then last spring, the museum reopened, this time in a former nursing home in Oxford, Neb., about 100 miles west of Nelson.

Many of the same motivations in Nelson apply to Oxford, a village of 876 in south-central Nebraska 40 miles south of Interstate 80.

The museum appealed to some community leaders because tourism represents an economic opportunity within their grasp — it requires neither huge capital outlays nor sizable labor pools.

But now, not four months after the dedication ceremony, the future of the Oxford museum appears in doubt.

The articulate and effusive Kopitke is no longer involved with daily operations. He spends one day a week in Oxford, but otherwise, he lives with his wife and son 100 miles east in the old Nelson high school.

Meanwhile, a local Korean War vet and another resident volunteer to staff the museum. A message on the phone instructs callers to dial a number in Nelson, the Web site hasn't been updated in months and little has been paid to the South Dakota businessman who agreed to sell the $1.9 million nursing home building to the museum for $100,000.

Dennis Wolzen, the former Oxford village administrator who was instrumental in bringing the museum to town, said he's now leery of Kopitke. To Wolzen and others in Oxford, it looks like the man who convinced them the museum would help their community is abandoning the project for greener pastures.

"I told him, ‘You've got to stay here and get this one off the ground first,'" Wolzen said, recalling when Kopitke told him he was leaving. "He made the comment, ‘I've got to feed my family, they've got to eat.'"

For the past several weeks, the museum has been run by volunteer Myron Bennett, a retired science teacher and Korean War vet from Oxford. Bennett said a volunteer assistant helps him staff the museum. He posts his phone number on the door in case a visitor drops by after hours.

Bennett said he and Kopitke had a falling out when Bennett pressed him for information about the financial solvency of the museum.

"I told him he needed to get the museum's finances above the board; he basically told me it was none of my business."

But Bennett said he remains involved for veterans and their families. Many vets can't walk through the displays without tearing up, Bennett said.

"He left a hell of a museum," Bennett said. "It's still as good as it ever was, he's just not present."

Kenneth Johnson, a Korean War vet from Beaver City, started working at the museum last winter through a government program that provides minimum-wage jobs for senior citizens. Before long, Kopitke made him assistant administrator.

When Johnson left the museum in early June because of back surgery, he saw unpaid bills starting to accumulate. Kopitke told him he would keep the museum going, even if he had to move it from Oxford, Johnson said.

Still, if it were properly funded, Johnson thought Kopitke could make it work.

"He knows how to do it. The man is no dummy. He's accumulated a lot of stuff over there in Oxford."

If Oxford residents believe he's walking away from the museum, they're wrong, Kopitke said. He is still working on the priority of finding donors who can help buy the 40,000-square-foot building.

Since April, Kopitke said about 1,000 people have visited the museum, which charges $10 admission, Kopitke said. Considering it won't be listed in the state tourism guide until next year, he said he's pleased with visitation so far.

The museum plans to host a "consecration ceremony" Sept. 10. Kopitke said he is expecting more than 1,000 vets and their families.

In past news stories, Kopitke said he curated the Korean War collection in Hawaii for no pay. More recently, he declined to discuss whether he is receiving compensation for his work in Oxford.

He did say, however, he is being paid to start the Vietnam War museum in Nelson.

"I'm a professional museum developer," he said. "Isn't it nice to have a livelihood where I do something positive and uplifting?"

Some who dealt with Kopitke years ago when he first tried to launch the museum in Hawaii were less than uplifted by the experience.

Hal Barker of Dallas, who started the fund used to raise $22 million for the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., said he has friends who made monetary or memorabilia donations to Kopitke only to watch him make amateurish attempts to start a museum.

Barker, whose father fought in Korea, now runs the Korean War Project, an online database of soldiers killed or missing in the war.

Despite having no endowment, no serious financial backers and no formal training as a historical curator, Kopitke continues to seek donations from veterans and their families under the pretense his museum is professional and stable, Barker said.

"The worst thing they can do is let something fail," he said. "It just tears the veterans apart, because they have been so ignored, so disregarded."

Barker said he doubts Kopitke is getting wealthy from his work, especially in Oxford. After spending years raising money for the Washington memorial, Barker said there just aren't any big-dollar benefactors for the Korean War.

In response, Kopitke said he agrees fund-raising is a struggle, but his museum displays 5,000 items related to the war, making it the largest collection of its kind in the country. Nearly all were donated by veterans and their families.

And while Hal Barker has never set foot in his museum, Kopitke said it's not unusual for veterans to give him tearful embraces after seeing the collection.

"We're not trying to be Disneyland," he said. "We're just trying to provide a space where the Korean War veteran feels welcome and where future generations of Americans can see that democracy comes with a price."

In fact, he said, nearly 98 percent of visitors who've filled out surveys after seeing the museum said they found the experience worthwhile.

What's certain about Kopitke is that he never gives up.

A native of the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Kopitke said he served in the U.S. Army from 1975-78, which is where he was trained as a counselor. He also said he did a stint in the Peace Corps in the mid-1980s before working as a records consultant for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City for about six years.

His first public attempt to start the Korean War museum dates to January 1999, when Cedar City, Utah, gave the project 110 acres on the condition he raise half the $6 million goal in one year. Kopitke, who predicted the museum would attract 250,000 visitors annually, seemed undaunted.

Four months later, however, he pulled out of Cedar City, saying the donated land contained Native archaeological artifacts, making it inappropriate for a museum site.

About two years later, Kopitke and his museum resurfaced in Hawaii. This time, he and his supporters managed to break ground on donated property near Waikoloa on the Big Island. But construction never progressed and the land donation eventually was withdrawn.

Steven Kalnasy, a 44-year-old safety specialist with the Marine Corps in Hawaii, said he met Kopitke in the summer of 2001. Kalnasy, whose late father saw combat in Korea, said he used his contacts with local radio stations to promote fund-raisers for the museum. He even arranged on-air plugs by Jamie Farr and Mike Farrell, two actors from the Korean War sitcom "M*A*S*H."

After a fund-raising dinner, Kalnasy said he and several other supporters wanted to know how much was raised. But Kopitke refused to give him a number, Kalnasy said.

"He's a really nice, soft-spoken guy, but he doesn't tell you anything," Kalnasy said. "He eludes you. He asks you other questions to throw you off track."

But when Kalnasy continued to push, he got a letter from Kopitke and his supporters threatening to sue if he persisted. In the meantime, Kalnasy said his father and other Korean War vets withdrew their support.

"The only people who get hurt here are the veterans."

The last thing he would do is hurt veterans, Kopitke said. The fund-raising dinner raised only $400 and he denied withholding details from Kalnasy or veteran's groups.

The reason he has been dedicated to the museum project for so long is because he wants to see vets get the respect they earned for "winning a pivotal victory of the Cold War."

Still, he said it's his policy not to answer questions about the financial status of the museum.

Attempts to check with officers on the museum's board of trustees proved unsuccessful. Papers filed with the Nebraska Secretary of State show the museum as a nonprofit corporation with Kopitke as president of the board. The other officers listed home states as Utah or Georgia. The Journal Star obtained the phone number of only one officer and was unable to reach him.

While Kopitke admitted his museum isn't exactly the Smithsonian, he argued there is still a place for it and others like it, especially in middle America. Not everyone can travel to Washington.

In fact, he said many small towns in Nebraska have solid, vacant public buildings that would lend themselves perfectly for museums. He envisions a trail of small-town military museums across the state that would be popular with traveling veterans and history buffs.

The museums in Oxford and Nelson are just the first two. He said he is negotiating with officials in four other towns, although he declined to identify them.

Kopitke said he has a 10,000-item collection of Americana memorabilia, which would provide the basis for the museums' displays.

"It's important to teach American history from a positive viewpoint," he said.

In Nelson, officials knew about Kopitke's past, but the City Council still voted 4-0 on May 18 to approve a one-year contract, said Judy Schott, the city clerk. To protect the city's interests, one council member, a retired sheriff's deputy, serves on the museum's board of directors and a local accountant has oversight of financial matters.

The contract pays Kopitke $10,000. In addition, the city saw to it a new, two-bedroom apartment was built in the former art room of the school for the curator, and it provided him with use of a used car.

The museum must pay $40,000 to the private owner of the high school property, who bought it after the school closed.

The project has already rallied widespread community support, Schott said. For example, a contractor donated labor to build the apartment, a family made a year's worth of payments on the land contract and everything from appliances to carpeting to high-speed Internet access was donated.

Community leaders believe a relatively modest investment can generate more traffic, economic activity and even pride, said Wayne Garrison, city attorney. Their expectations are equally modest.

"If we could get a couple thousand people coming to Nelson for the sole reason of coming to a museum, that's a couple thousand people we didn't have before."

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or

A series of events

January 1999 — The city council in Cedar City, Utah, gives Kyle Kopitke 110 acres of land if he can raise half of a $6 million goal in one year. To convince the council to get behind his plan to build a Korean War museum, Kopitke says the museum could attract 250,000 visitors annually, reports the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

April 1999 — Saying land donated by Cedar City contains Native archaeological artifacts, Kopitke announces he's in the market for a new site. A Cedar City economic development official says Kopitke's inability to raise money is the real reason for the move. "I wish Kyle would be forthright and just say ‘I can't do the deal here' rather than make up these excuses," Brent Drew tells the Deseret News.

February 2001 — Kopitke unsuccessfully lobbies for a $3 million tourism appropriation from the Hawaii Legislature to start the museum.

August 2001 — Kopitke and supporters break ground on 14 acres of donated land near Waikoloa on the Big Island in Hawaii. Kopitke says museum will cost $6 million; he hopes to obtain federal grants.

February 2004 — Kopitke resurfaces in Oahu, opening the National Korean War Museum in a former military metal hut. News reports from the opening say the displays are unfinished and memorabilia is exposed to the Hawaiian heat and humidity because the building lacks walls.

July 2004 — Kopitke signs lease with the Oscoda-Wurtsmith, Mich., Airport Authority for a 28,000-square-foot building near Lake Huron. Kopitke says he wants to start a mainland branch of the national museum there, but within weeks, he backs out of the agreement, saying the museum couldn't afford the $10,000 to insure the building.

September 2004 — Museum closes in Oahu after a court-ordered foreclosure leads to the sale of the hut and surrounding property. "There's two ways to look at this," Kopitke tells the Honolulu Advertiser. "Either the guillotine has fallen on our neck or we've got to find a larger facility."

November 2004 — Kopitke finds a larger facility in Oxford, a south-central Nebraska community of 876 about 50 miles south of Kearney. Kopitke and his family soon move into a closed nursing home to start transforming it into the National Korean War Museum.

April 2005 — In a ceremony attended by about 350 people, including dozens of Korean War veterans, the Oxford museum is officially dedicated and opened to the public.

July 2005 — Kopitke moves to Nelson, a community of 600 about 15 miles from the Kansas border. The Nelson City Council supports his plan to launch the Vietnam War National Museum in the abandoned high school building.

If you go

The Vietnam War National Museum will be dedicated with a plane flyover, music, speakers and military rites Sept. 24 in Nelson. Go to for information or call (402) 225-4117.

The Korean War National Museum will hold a consecration ceremony Sept. 10 in Oxford. For information, call (402) 225-4117.

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