Five Questions for Chris Isleib
"I wouldn't trade the incredible time I've had with this team for anything."
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
Publisher's note: As the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission shifts its mission to focus exclusively on the construction of the new National World War I Memorial in Washington, DC, there is also a shift in staffing. Among those who will, sadly, depart the Commission team is long-term Director of Public Affairs Chris Isleib. Isleib has been with the Commission on long-term loan from the U.S. National Archives, and will return to the Archives on the first of August. Chris's trademark contributions to the Commission web site were multi-question interviews via email with a wide assortment of individuals inside, outside, and around the Commission, and across the world. As what may be (but we hope isn't) his final contribution, Chris has a chance to interview one more important person about his tenure, and his personal experiences as part of the Centennial Commission team—himself!.
Tell us about your work as the Director of Public Affairs for the Centennial Commission. What did you do? What were your responsibilities?
I consider myself the luckiest person in the world -- with the best job in the world. I wouldn't trade the incredible time I've had with this team for anything.
Overall, my job has been to tell the story of America & World War I -- the human accounts of personal experiences, the sweeping history of our nation's role 100 years ago, the amazing commemorations that people have hosted across the country, and the new National Memorial that we are building here in Washington DC.
In my official duties as the Centennial Commission's Public Affairs Director, I have been the chief communication advisor for the office. I have been helping to strategize & prioritize what we say to our various audiences, and what tools we use to tell our messages -- be it social media, press releases, etc. I also worked closely with the news media members who cover our activities, or who are looking for stories about World War I.
I typically lined up Commissioner interviews & memorial site tours for them, I'd find imagery for them to use in their stories, I would also pitch new stories for them to cover -- whether the stories were about our World War I Memorial, or about someone's remarkable personal experience, or event, that happened 100 years ago.
I also had a hand in gathering the content that we put together for our regular outlets -- especially for our weekly newsletter, DISPATCH, and for our social media outlets.
How long was your tenure there? How did you some to be involved with the Centennial Commission?
I have been with the Centennial Commission right from the beginning -- I started as one of the first volunteers back in 2013.
At the time, I was Director of Communication with the U.S. National Archives. Dan Dayton (the Centennial Commission's Executive Director) knew me from our time with the Navy Reserves, and he reached out to me for a favor, to provide some pro bono help, to get the new Commission's communication program off the ground. I was thrilled because this tiny little group of people had big dreams, to do something that few people ever get to do -- build a new National Memorial in the U.S. Capital.
So, I gave them my my free time. I helped to set up their basic public affairs organization -- to gather other volunteers who could write, to create the Facebook & Twitter accounts, try to get some social media audience/following, to draft an overall communication strategy for the new organization, help find World War I imagery resources, help create the logo, reach out to create relationships with reporters and possible partner organizations. Stuff like that.
As time went on, I got more and more drawn into the Commissions efforts, and was fortunate to be allowed by the National Archives leadership to transfer over full-time, to the Commission, on a long-term temporary detail.
The Commission was involved with many different activities during that time period. Tell us about them.
Wow -- We did a lot of stuff over the past six years, big and small. An amazing list:
♦ We hosted a design competition for the new memorial, and got nearly 400 people to compete in it.
♦ We created a new commemorative dollar with the U.S. Mint, and sold 150,000 of them.
♦ We organized state-level Centennial committees, and they hosted over 1,000 commemorative activities nationwide.
♦ We started a fundraiser for the new memorial, and we raised nearly $30 Million, so far.
♦ We produced a Remembrance event for the start of the war, and got it covered on the front page of USA TODAY.
♦ We created a nationwide Bells of Peace event for the end of the war, and got 20,000 people to join in, and participate in it. Amazing stuff.
And if you go on our Commission website, listen to our podcast, read our weekly newsletter, you will see that these efforts -- to tell the World War I stories, to honor the American men & women who served, to remember the lessons in classrooms -- all are strong, and all are continuing.
What events stick out in your mind? What experiences still resonate with you?
Again, I consider myself the luckiest person in the world -- with the best job in the world. The real reason? -- The people that I was able to meet, and work with, were some of the most remarkable and colorful people I will ever know.
These following are just a few, there should be hundreds more in this highly-abbreviated list...
Steve Girardis a certified ABMC battlefield guide, and a world-class living history reenactor. He generously invited me to join the guys in his unit for a weekend-long 'tactical' event at Newville, in the rain, which introduced me to the basics of the day-to-day trench life experienced by every military member who ever served in the war, one hundred years ago.
That remarkable experience really stuck with me, and informed my emotional impression of every subsequent World War I book I ever read, every World War I film I ever watched, and every story I ever heard, afterward.
Stephany Neal was the visionary driving force behind the creation of the 369th Experience. Her tribute band, made up entirely of music students from historically black colleges & universities, slays every audience they ever play before, just as their real-life predecessors did 100 years ago. And in so doing, they preserve a part of African-American history that is so emotionally powerful, that it literally makes me cry to think about.
Dave Shuey was an amazing General Pershing reenactor, who brought energy, humor, pathos, and deep understanding, to the General Pershing character. He was so charismatic in his portrayal, that we literally chased him down the street to recruit him to help our Centennial Commission. He said yes, and represented us for over two dozen major events, engaging with major VIP's, over the next four years, until his untimely passing last year.
"Packard Dave" Lockard has turned his retirement life into a rolling tribute to our Doughboys -- through restoring and showing his incredible World War I era Packard U.S. Army trucks. He has also become a world expert on these machines, and helps other enthusiasts restore them.
He goes all over the country, telling the story of their crucial role in winning the war, and their role in helping to solidify the peace, afterward, in post-war Europe. He has been the face behind the wheel, every year, at DC's National Memorial Day Parade, driving the most beautiful Army truck I have ever seen,
Yael Rosen was our commission's lead for four different Commission trips to Europe. She served as point, arranging every detail of travel, lodging, transportation, scheduling, location support, host-nation liaison services, meals, talking-points, etc. -- so that our Commissioners & staff could participate in major diplomatic/commemorative events there. She fluently speaks six languages, and used every single one of them to ensure our Commission's success -- which she delivered, every time.
Dale Archerhas been our Commission's Chief of Staff, as well as the project manager for the National World War I Memorial project. He has been a constant force, behind the scenes, to ensure our staff's success -- clearing obstacles, policing administrative processes, ensuring approvals, etc. -- so that our planners can plan, our operators can operate, our educators can educate, and our builders can build the new memorial.
What are your hopes for the commission, and for the memorial?
It is crucial to America's future that our memorial be built. This new National World War I Memorial in Washington DC is our gift to future generations, so that they can learn from, become familiar with, and be inspired by, the stories of those American men & women who served one hundred years ago. These stories, and these lessons, are their inheritance. These stories must be preserved, and passed on.