PETALUMA (CBS SF) – School children who visit the Petaluma Museum are seeing a lot more than the history of poultry in the city. Their small hometown museum has transformed into a classroom for national history, thanks to this week’s Jefferson Award winner.
The Korean War is often called the Forgotten War. But Joe Noriel is making sure it is not forgotten. At a recent afternoon at the Petaluma Museum, he chatted with Korean War veteran Paul Lewis, encouraging him to share his story.
“We stopped the aggression of communism going down into southern Korea,” Lewis remembered. “Fifty-four thousand of us never came home.”
Noriel is planning an October exhibit at the Petaluma Museum to show the Korean War’s importance in U.S. history.
“It was instrumental in the first MASH unit, which increased survival rates by 97%,” Noriel explained. “First interracial integration in the military. Interestingly, most of the Korean veterans actually live here in California.”
Noriel has volunteered as President of the Petaluma Museum for the last four years. He doesn’t have any formal museum training. In fact, he’s a credit collection manager by trade. But he does have a passion for creating moving national history exhibits.
“I noticed that in a lot of textbooks, a lot of important history isn’t being covered,” Noriel recalled. “So I knew at that point, we needed to reach out to get a lot of these stories told.”
Of the exhibits Noriel has presented, about half of them honor American war veterans.
“I don’t think we can recognize people enough for their service,” he said. “It’s an absolute incredible history.”
Noriel holds special respect for American military veterans. His father served in World War II and Korea.
He’s especially proud of how a 2010 exhibit welcomed home Vietnam veterans and united the North Bay community.
“We felt we needed to do this exhibit right, so we included the Vietnamese community and the amount of healing that took place was incredible,” he said.
Steve Kemmerle of the American Legion says Noriel’s work has meant a lot to many veterans.
“It makes ’em feed good to see someone recognizes what they’ve done in the past,” said Kemmerle.
And Noriel has a knack for bringing the past to life through the personal stories of those who lived it: For a space exhibit, he booked Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. For a civil rights exhibit, Melba Beals shared her historic role in school desegregation as part of the Little Rock Nine. And for an aviation program, Noriel brought in World War II hero Colonel James Morehead.
The museum president says curating the exhibits the last four years has inspired him: “These stories need to be heard by the younger generation. It was a life changer.”
So for making history come alive at the Petaluma Museum, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Joe Noriel.