New Market Battlefield Park founder dies at 102

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald

NEW MARKET — Scott Harris, former director of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, said one of his predecessors, James Jewel Geary, made him feel as though he was “having another job interview” shortly after Harris was hired to run the park in 2001.

“He was sizing me up to see if I was worthy,” Harris said. “I must have passed, because he continued to be nice to me.”

Geary, the creator and founding director of the New Market battlefield park, died on Feb. 25 at age 102.

The park and its museum, the Hall of Valor, opened in 1966. Geary oversaw the park’s operations until his retirement in 1982, then served another seven years as a consultant.

Geary’s widow, Patricia Little Geary, 74, said on March 3 that her husband called the park his “crowning achievement.” His experience as executive director of the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission in Richmond in the 1960s helped him get the job, she said.

“He oversaw the whole thing,” she said. “He saw the architects’ designs and planned the exhibits.”

Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1914 and raised in Roanoke, Geary served three years in the U.S. Navy as a communications officer at the Lake Pend Oreille base in Idaho during World War II.

He attended the University of Virginia and earned a second bachelor’s degree in philosphy and religion from James Madison University in 1985. He married Patricia Geary in 1982.

He was a reporter for the Associated Press in Richmond when he decided to inquire about the top job on the Centennial Commission, Patricia Geary said.

“He asked in kind of an off-hand way if it was something he would be qualified for,” she said. “Then he went on vacation for two weeks, and he came back and found out they were looking for him.”

The Virginia Military Institute in Lexington owns the battlefield. It was the site of the May 15, 1864, Battle of New Market, which featured 257 VMI cadets joining Confederate forces to push the U.S. Army from the area.

According to Harris, who now directs the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Fredericksburg, Geary helped a former U.S. legislator from Winchester pioneer the idea of bringing VMI cadets to the battlefield every year in what is now known as the “Rat Parade.”

“[Rep.] Jack Marsh, whose son went to VMI, was instrumental in getting that process going,” Harris said. “That was a big part of really getting the park identified with VMI.”

Geary was an expert promoter, Harris said, and was able to turn unexpected problems into advertising opportunities.

“One day, a black snake managed to find its way into the exhibits,” Harris said. “Before it was dealt with, Jim made sure to take a picture of it and used it to say that everyone wants to come to the battlefield, even the snakes.”

When he wasn’t keeping an eye on his creation, Geary spent his retirement visiting 32 national parks with his wife.

“His favorite was Yellowstone,” Patricia Geary said. “He called it the granddaddy of all the national parks.”

Harris praised Geary’s dedication to the battlefield, which lasted through his final years.

“It was a real privilege to be able to meet him and develop a meaningful rapport with him,” he said.

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