Tony Lute said safety comes first with his collection of military memorabilia. “There’s nothing that would blow up,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be in here if anything could blow up.” (Thomas Wells)
TUPELO – A man doesn’t reach 68 years old without accumulating regrets along the way.
Tony Lute, who owns the Tupelo Veterans Museum, wishes he would’ve asked a few more questions.
“I get to know about everyone who comes in here, and I ask them questions,” Lute said, “but I didn’t take the time to question my dad about what he did.
“I knew he was in the Merchant Marines, but I never questioned him,” Lute continued. “He went in when he was 16 years old and stayed until the war ended. He spent all of World War II, 1936 to 1945, then he came home and did dredging work on the Mississippi River.”
Tony Lute Sr. brought back a set of church chimes from his time during the war. They’re on display at the museum, which is packed with relics and mementos from America’s wars and conflicts.
“Everybody asks if I have a favorite piece, but no one piece in here is more important that the others,” Lute said. “If I had to pick one thing, it would have to be those church chimes. They’re personal to me, you know.”
He used to keep his vast collection stored at his place in Verona, but he wanted to put it on display for everyone to see. He doesn’t charge admission to visit the museum, which is next to the Oren Dunn City Museum in Ballard Park.
“I didn’t open this to make money,” he said. “I at least hoped to break even, but it didn’t work that way. To keep this museum going, you have to keep buying things or having them donated to keep it fresh.”
The museum has rewarded Lute in other ways. The opportunity to pull old stories out of his dad is gone, but veterans have turned the museum into a hangout, where they relax and swap stories.
In addition to his work at the museum, Lute is a fixture at veteran-related events in Tupelo. He’s part of a group that provides breakfast for veterans at American Legion Post 49 in Tupelo each Wednesday morning.
He also meets with veterans of the 8th Air Force for monthly gatherings at Barnhill’s on Gloster Street.
Eugene Spearman, 87, of Saltillo, served in the 8th Air Force, and he’s a regular at the museum. He’s become comfortable amid the overflow of books, weapons, model airplanes, uniforms, flags, posters and more.
“We appreciate Tony and what he does,” Spearman said. “We really do.”
Army veteran Leon Hulsey, 71, of Saltillo, fills in behind the counter when Lute is away.
As Lute said, “When I disappear, he appears.”
Hulsey usually spends three days a week at the museum, where he helps Lute find space to display new items in the already crowded building.
“I love everything in the building and Tony,” Hulsey said. “That’s why I come in. He and I jack-jaw and read books. It’s a good time.”
Lute, who served in the Army Reserve, worked as a state building inspector for 30 years before he retired. He also worked at The Mall at Barnes Crossing as a maintenance director and construction coordinator.
In retirement, he’s found another mission. With his vast collection of military memorabilia and the questions he asks his visitors, Lute keeps memories alive.
“The only bad thing about the museum is I don’t have enough space to house it all,” he said. “The rest is in my building in Verona. That’s why I like to swap things in and out.”
It’s a constant job, and Lute knows he won’t be able to do it forever.
“If something happens to me, I hope it will carry on,” he said. “I feel like my grandchildren or someone will keep it going. It won’t be easy. They won’t make any money at it, but I hope they can keep it going.”