History runs in her genes

Winterer tends to artifacts at the Marine Corps museum.

Winterer tends to artifacts at the Marine Corps museum.

From the Roanoke College Magazine, Issue Two, 2012. View the entire Roanoke Magazine online.

As a child, Gretchen Winterer '05 spent family vacations traipsing across Civil War battlefields from Manassas to Gettysburg.

"I hated it," recalls Gretchen, who would have preferred spending time at more child-friendly spots, such as Disney World or, say, Colonial Williamsburg or Busch Gardens.

As a Roanoke student, she decided to take a course in the Civil War because she had become steeped in the subject in spite of herself. Inspired by professors such as Dr. Mark Miller, Winterer discovered her deep and innate passion for history, a gene she had inherited from her father, a retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant major and lifelong history buff.

"Professor Miller brought the past to life by showing the importance of history to our lives," Winterer says. "He was a great mentor, always there for me." Her dad was thrilled with her decision to major in history.  "Some parents might ask, 'What are you going to do with a history major?,' but my dad imagined the possibilities."

In addition to the mentorship of her professors, Winterer credits her personal development in college to membership in the Roanoke College Historical Society, the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society and, in particular, Chi Omega Sorority.

Internships at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution and with the U.S. Marine Corps Archives helped her gain admission to George Washington University, from which she earned her master's degree in American History and a graduate certificate in Museum Studies.

Today, Winterer serves as assistant general curator for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, overseeing the care and research of personal and cultural objects associated with the Marine Corps. "Every day is different," she says, "I get to hear the stories of veterans who fought for our country and preserve artifacts for future generations."

The case of a significant sledgehammer underscores the diversity of Winterer's work.

"About two years ago, I received an email from a gentleman claiming he had a sledgehammer used by Marines to help capture John Brown during his raid on Harpers Ferry," Winterer said. "The sledgehammer had been in this man's family for over 100 years. The donor had a notarized letter verifying the sledge's history. I spent hours on the phone and weeks thumbing through documents from the Charles Town courthouse in West Virginia. I verified every piece of the story to confirm that this sledgehammer was in fact used in 1859. The sledgehammer went on exhibit in May 2012."

Winterer's current duties include researching the complete architectural history of the Commandant's House (built in 1804), a place she describes as "like a miniature White House." 

Winterer is also working on an exhibit of the Invasion of Grenada in 1983, a task for which she is uniquely well-suited. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the Marine Corps' role in the invasion, a campaign in which her father had served.

"Things have come full circle," she notes. "I love my job," adding that "a museum is the closest thing we have to a time machine."

Winterer is married to Joseph Winterer, an urban planner aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico. The couple lives in Fredericksburg, Va. with their daughter Abigail.

"My dad taught me the meaning and importance of history," Winterer says, "and I've continued that family tradition. I've already taken my daughter to three battlefields, and she's only 8 months old."

- David Treadwell