By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Humility is an admirable trait, but it sometimes gets in the way of Tony Lute’s mission.
He’s curator and owner of Tupelo Veterans Museum, where he showcases America’s fighting men and women, who aren’t always interested in taking credit for their service.
“A lot of the stuff I have, before it came to me, it was in a closet,” he said. “After it’s been here a week, more people see it than had since 1945.”
When veterans from Northeast Mississippi die, relatives sometimes donate their military memorabilia to Lute’s massive collection on display at the museum, which is connected to the Oren Dunn City Museum in Ballard Park.
“They come and see how we display things and how we take care of it,” the 68-year-old Verona resident said. “They want to be a part of it.”
Some of that humility hangs on, even after a service member has died. Plantersville native Mildred McVay served as a Navy nurse in World War II, and retired as a lieutenant commander in 1963. After McVay died in 2004 at the age of 95, her sister donated a uniform and other mementos of McVay’s military career.
“She said that if Mildred knew this was here, she’d be upset,” Lute said. “I told her, ‘No one wants to be forgotten.’ A lot of people bring stuff and don’t want names on it, but I tell them, ‘No one wants to be forgotten.’”
Sharing a passion
Lute isn’t trained in museum management. He began his collection at the age of 16 with church chimes his dad brought back from World War II.
“I’ve always been interested in World War II. For a while, that was all I collected,” Lute said. “One day, I decided I might open a museum. That’s when I started getting stuff from every war, every conflict.”
In 2002, he opened the museum at his home in Verona, then moved it to the Mall at Barnes Crossing. Nearly seven years ago, he moved to Ballard Park.
He’s accumulated enough helmets, Nazi flags, radios, photographs, propaganda posters, maps and gas masks to fill the Tupelo Veterans Museum three times over. He rotates items in and out, but the shelves and display cases stay crammed with history.
“A lot of stuff. You can’t see the forest for the trees,” he said. “If you come in and try to see every little thing, you couldn’t do it in a day. I have people who come and take their time. They spend hours looking around. When they’re done, I take them around and say, ‘This is what you missed.’”
Lute is proud of the World War II radio that he recently acquired. It’s been reconditioned and ham radio operators use it to talk with people around the world.
He’s got a cannon that once sat in front of the Tupelo Police Department, and he has pictures of his grandchildren diligently painting it.
In one corner sits a jet engine from a B-29 that once produced 3,700 horsepower.
“I had it on a Volkswagen one time, and it went 1,000 miles per hour,” Lute said, then shook his head. “That’s what I tell the kids.”
The museum has room for small things, too. The shelves hold lighters, dog tags, eating utensils, postcards, letters and other intimate items from people who served.
“I had a guy from Chicago in here. He got through looking around after two hours, and he said, ‘This is the best knickknack museum ever,’” Lute recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You have the things people carried around with them.’ That’s true. We show how people lived.”
Hoping for more
Lute said a museum needs to grow in order to stay fresh, so he’s always looking for new treasures. He’s actively seeking a Norton bombsight, which allowed a World War II bombardier to take control of the airplane when it was over a target.
“During the ‘50s and ‘60s, they were selling for $500,” he said. “I know there’s one in somebody’s attic, somewhere.”
Lute finds some items for himself, and others come to him from veterans and their families. At the end of one row of shelves is a portrait of James Argene Calvery in his Army Airborne uniform from World War II.
“I don’t know much about him,” Lute said. “His family was moving away and they brought this in.”
In addition to the portrait, there’s a picture of a white cross with his name on it amid a sea of others in a European cemetery.
The museum has its machines of war and its slices of daily life, which make for interesting viewing.
The museum also has a mission that goes beyond things.
As Lute said, “No one wants to be forgotten.”
Memorial Day event
MILITARY MEN AND WOMEN who made the ultimate sacrifice will be honored at 9 a.m. Monday at Veterans Memorial Park in Tupelo.
Col. Bobby Christopher (retired) will be guest speaker, and Ronnie K.
Young will serve as emcee. Patriotic music will be performed by Amanda Summers, and Bob Verell will perform “Taps.” In addition, Persian Gulf veterans will lay a wreath in honor of those who lost their lives in U.S. conflicts around the globe. It will be the sixth annual Veterans Memorial Ceremony at the park.
TUPELO VETERANS MUSEUM is located next to the Oren Dunn City Museum at Ballard Park.
The museums are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The admission fee is $3/adults, $2/seniors, $1.50/4-16 and free/3 and under.
“It’s like getting into two museums for the price of one,” said Tony Lute, curator and owner of Tupelo Veterans Museum.
Lute doesn’t get any money from the admission fee, but he doesn’t have to pay rent for his portion of the building. Visitors are welcome to contribute to his donation box.
For more information, call (662) 844-1515.