The man behind the head of operations of the United States first-ever aircraft carrier museum prepares to take his final bow at the helm in the coming months. Patriots Point executive director Mac Burdette announced Wednesday that his retirement will be effective June 30.
For nearly the past decade, since 2010, Burdette has supplied the demands at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in a fashion of his own. Coming to the table with more than 30 years of experience in the U.S. Army (Persian Gulf War), retiring as colonel in 2003, and 25 years as town administrator of the Town of Mount Pleasant. Burdette’s service in these positions overlapped. His diverse background and knowledge enabled him to add his touch to the 460-acre parcel of state-owned land beside the Charleston Harbor.
"I really don't want the term 'legacy' assigned to me on this. We are caretakers to start with and we build on a succession of efforts from before," Burdette said.
Over the past 40 years of its existence, Patriots Point has seen a handful of directors come and go by the wayside. In Burdette's eyes he's another soon-to-be predecessor on a list of good facilitators and enablers. As for his staff and peers, his presence will be felt and his principles will be echoed long after his departure.
“Mac is one of the most gifted men I have ever met,” said Ray Chandler, Patriots Point Development Authority (PPDA) Board Chairman. “He has given Patriots Point all of his immense energy and talent. We have been the beneficiaries of his unparalleled experience in business and government.”
When Burdette arrived on the scene nine years ago, his grand plans for the museum at the time were perceived as unconventional because they were unprecedented. Burdette, a seasoned product of Clemson University, came aboard during the rise of the millennial age. This meant making a drastic change in visuals through revamping its marketing platform in order to captivate a modernized audience. Attempting such an adaptation would mean introducing elements of historical attraction never before experienced at the site.
"In my view this is where museums need to be moving. Moving it from the traditional museum where there were static exhibits and you walked up and looked at them, read charts, pictures and then you moved on to the next exhibit," Burdette continued. "We have begun the process of making the 'experience' here one that is going to be fully interactive and to a great extent immersive."
Burdette believes that under this philosophy the educational, inspirational and the entertainment areas can be best attained. "That's what keeps people coming back."
Under his post, the museum opened several significant exhibits that use the latest audio and video technology to honor veterans and educate visitors about military history. Those exhibits include the 3-acre Vietnam Experience, the U.S.S. Laffey Combat Information Center and Phase I of the U.S.S. Yorktown’s Engine Room Experience. But to Burdette, all of these tasks couldn't have been achieved without his supporting cast.
"I think I've done a pretty doggone good job of hiring some really capable, creative and dedicated people. And that's not false modesty, that's the absolute truth," Burdette said.
At any given time there are about 85 full-time and 35 part-time personnel. Burdette commends their humble service for modest pay which extends around the clock during weekends, holidays and even natural disasters.
He went on to selflessly detract the spotlight from himself. Inadvertently, he continued to credit those around him for their successes collectively rather than independently. A quality only a leader would possess.
"I don't think I have done anything to keep Patriots Point 'afloat.' I've had many people attempt to give me credit for 'saving Patriots Point,'" Burdette continued. "Patriots Point, in my opinion, has never been in a situation where it needed saving. That's complimentary to us, but it's almost a little insulting to all of the hard work that went on here 30 years before I or any of my staff got here."
Burdette says his prerogative from day one was analyzing Patriots Point, both past and present, and help put together a plan that would carry it into the future by highlighting its needs and challenges financially and politically.
“Mac is a natural leader and a person you never want to let down. When he puts his mind to something he finds a way to get it done," said Chris Hauff, Patriots Point public information officer. "There is a big reason Mac was so successful in the Army, as town administrator for Mount Pleasant, and as executive director here at Patriots Point. That reason is his passion. It is contagious and something you want to see in someone you work for. His passion inspires people to operate at their best.”
Other major projects accomplished just within Fiscal Year 2019 involved painting the U.S.S. Yorktown’s superstructure, Phase II of the U.S.S. Yorktown’s Engine Room Experience, a Cold War exhibit in the U.S.S. Laffey pilot house and a new Special Forces exhibit in the Vietnam Experience. Not to mention a plethora of free-of-charge symposiums ranging from World War II to the War on Terror.
Out of all the accolades and achievements under Burdette's tenure to date, the accomplishment he and his staff are most prideful of is successfully negotiating a 99-year lease with Charleston businessman Michael Bennett's Bennett Hospitality to govern the future development of 60-acres of land that will fund the restoration of the ever-aging U.S.S. Yorktown and U.S.S. Laffey for future generations.
"The Patriots Point Annex Project has been the most important action taken by a board in probably 30 years at Patriots Point," Burdette added. "There's no way you could ever sell enough tickets or t-shirts to maintain three or two historic warships. It's impossible. The land has always been the key to that."
During the peak of Burdette's productivity, PPDA and its board of directors drafted a long-term business plan that resulted in record-breaking attendance (329,000) in Fiscal Year 2018. The previous record for paid attendance was set in 1987 by 297,371 visitors.
In February 2018, Burdette's era of tasks did not go unrecognized. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the South Carolina City and County Management Association. No stranger to public service, aside from serving as town administrator for a quarter century, Burdette previously spent six years as director of planning for the S.C. Coastal Council.
Despite of all the success he's had over the years, Burdette admits times on the harbor weren't always a state of tranquility. Among some of the biggest adversities were having to work within the state's regulatory system. Having to run Patriots Point "like a business" due to the absence of state financial assistance.
Another bitter reality that came to his mind was the recent decision to divest in the U.S.S. Clamagore, which soon will no longer call Patriots Point her home. Burdette says it was a very tough decision, but still believes it was the right decision, from a business standpoint.
"It's hard to explain to the elected officials of the state, the public and veterans, how costly it is to maintain three 75-year-old warships. It's not like maintaining a building, I assure you," Burdette said. "Without the ships this is just a piece of land."
Over the next 20 years, he projects the U.S.S. Yorktown alone will require $50 million in maintenance costs. Burdette is also optimistic about the H.L. Hunley perhaps someday calling Patriots Point its new home.
He confessed that one of the biggest hardships and disappointments of all, which he still regrets today, is the dissolving partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation. In December 2018, Patriots Point terminated the longstanding lease agreement, ultimately parting ways with the plans of building a Medal of Honor Museum on site.
"So many people on our staff and our board sunk about six years into this. We did it for all the right reasons. We did it truthfully and honorably," Burdette said. "I still feel that we were not treated well, ultimately, by the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation. To me, this is the biggest disappointment in my time period."
In retrospect of all the ups and downs that Burdette has endured over the course of his lifetime career, he says he could have never possibly envisioned ending his working career in a more "important place" than Patriots Point. He says place like Patriots Point are very critical going forward because society is changing. There has to be places where families can come and children can understand what it took to become the nation we are.
“It has been one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life to have served this great institution that has touched the lives of millions,” Burdette concluded. "It has been said before, and often by my sainted grandmother that 'a Lady and a Gentleman should know when it's time to leave the party.' That time has come."
Burdette alluded to his retirement from Patriots Point being the "last stop in the round-up."
The PPDA Board of Directors has formed a committee to immediately begin the selection process for Burdette’s successor.