New Bong Center director: Honoring veterans 'at the core of what we do'
Dustin Heckman wants to build on past successes to keep stories of service to country in front of people
History was the family story when Dustin Heckman was growing up.
The new director of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center learned you the value the past has to offer the present from old family stories.
“My great-grandfather was always telling us stories about history,” Heckman said. “His dad emigrated here from England, so he was a first-generation English-American. So, he would tell stories of the old country and everything like that, and that was kind of my hook for what got me into history.”
But it wasn’t just a love of history that prompted Heckman to uproot his family to lead the historical center that honors veterans.
“Growing up, my uncle, my mom’s second brother, was in the Navy, and he was in the Navy during Desert Storm,” Heckman said.
Heckman recounted being home with his mom when the news in mid-January 1991 carried the first images of the aerial bombing campaign to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.
“So we were sitting there … just looking at her, understanding, 'Hey, my brother’s over there right now,’” Heckman said.
It wasn’t his last brush with family serving in the Middle East.
“I married into a military family,” Heckman said. “My father-in-law, this past June, retired from the Minnesota National Guard. I believe 30 years he was in. Then my wife’s brother-in-law … has done two deployments to the Middle East in the Minnesota National Guard.”
In fact, the announcement that his father-in-law, a full-time soldier at Camp Ripley, would deploy to Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard unit in Duluth threatened to upend wedding plans.
“My father-in-law was deployed within nine months of us getting married,” Heckman said. “We knew it was coming. For a while there it was, 'Is he going to get sent before the wedding? Do we need to move up the wedding?’ But it came down a few months beforehand that ‘we’re not going until next year.’”
With that knowledge of what military families face and a love for history, Heckman plans to lead the charge to make the Bong Center a destination in the Twin Ports, akin to Canal Park or Glensheen.
It’s a path that Heckman said his predecessor, Hayes Scriven, has already started on with his management of the Bong Center.
“Overall, I would like to see us become — and I think Hayes did a great job of this — keep going down that track of being a top attraction in the Twin Ports area, just because we have such a great story to tell. We have great artifacts, exhibits here. More people need to know about that.”
Over the next year, Heckman said he plans to “learn the ebb and flow of the organization” before deciding what’s next for the Bong Center.
“We’ve been doing such great programming and so many different things that I want to get an idea of how they’re all working before I come in and say, ‘Let’s do this differently’ simply because so much has been done in the last couple of years that I don’t feel we’re at a point where we have to reinvent the wheel,” Heckman said. “Right now, it’s just seeing what we have.”
Plans are still in the works for the free Thanksgiving dinner Nov. 28 for veterans launched in 2018 under Scriven.
“We wanted to see if there was a need last year for a meal like this and we were amazed at the turnout,” said John Gidley, education and outreach coordinator for the Bong Center.
The Center can feed up to 100 people, and the meal is free for veterans, thanks to a donation from the American Legion, Heckman said.
In addition to the dinner, the Center will have Christmas cards on hand for those who would like to send a message to troops far from home this holiday season.
“A lot of credit to Hayes for the things that he did to bring the Bong up another level,” Heckman said. “I think the biggest thing for me is to continue that and keep the Bong in front of people so we can continue to grow and be this community treasure that we’ve become.
"This is a place to honor veterans and that’s at the core of what we do. I want this to be a place where veterans and their families feel welcome.”
If you go
What: Veterans Thanksgiving Dinner
Where: Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, 305 Harbor View Parkway, Superior
When: Thursday, Nov. 28, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
RSVP: 715-392-7151 (space limited to 100 veterans)