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The Man Behind the Midway: Founding Chairman of Iconic Museum Retires

The ship wasn’t even there yet when John “Mac” McLaughlin became the founding president and CEO of the USS Midway Museum in December 2003.

It was a dream, really, plans were so tenuous that organizers had to set aside $500,000 to cover the cost of towing the mothballed, nearly 60-year-old aircraft carrier away from San Diego if the museum was collapsing.

It didn’t flop. It has become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions – with over 18 million visitors and counting – and an icon on the downtown waterfront. Now, nearly 20 years later, McLaughlin has decided it’s time to move on. He retires on Wednesday.

“Sometimes you just know,” said the almost 72-year-old former Navy rear admiral. “It’s time to make way for someone with more energy than this old man who can see the Midway in its next chapters.”

McLaughlin said he and his 46-year-old wife, Nora, were ready to “slow things down a bit” and move to a small town in South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

It will leave behind the most successful floating naval museum in the world, an attraction tied with the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and Balboa Park in the rankings of various tourist guides. According to Tripadvisor, it is the fourth most popular museum of any genre in the United States.

Mac McMaughlin stands near the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Midway, moored at North Harbor Drive.

(Dan Trevan/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Mac came to San Diego on a wing and prayed that this carrier would be a success, and somehow he mustered up the courage to do it,” said committee member John Hawkins. organization of the museum. He spent 12 years navigating federal, state and local regulations while the decommissioned ship sat in a Navy shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

McLaughlin had just retired from the Navy and moved to San Diego with his wife, a native of Chula Vista, when he was approached to lead the Midway.

A former helicopter pilot who had landed on the 1,000-foot-long aircraft carrier once or twice, he had a fondness for the ship and the idea. San Diego is the birthplace of naval aviation. The first American aircraft carriers were installed here.

But the outlook was daunting.

“We had no money, a lot of debt and no income,” he recalled in an interview on Friday. “No electricity, no water and no exhibits. We had nothing.

Except volunteers. And that made all the difference, he says. The volunteers found four planes to display. Volunteers helped remove years of rust and mounds of bird droppings. They painted and polished. And volunteers came on board as guides, to tell the kind of personal stories that have transformed the museum into a piece of living history.

Somehow, it all fell into place in six months, and the Midway opened to the public on June 7, 2004. “We have to earn our place on the waterfront,” McLaughlin said. at the Union-Tribune that day. “You earn it by providing value and service to the community.”

Volunteer Doug McKnight, left, shows old photos of planes to volunteer Jim Nash, center, and CEO Mac McLaughlin

Volunteer Doug McKnight, left, shows old photos of aircraft to volunteer Jim Nash, center, and CEO Mac McLaughlin on the aircraft carrier Midway in San Diego Bay when the museum began operating.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the first hour, 500 people had bought tickets. It was a sign of things to come.

Museum organizers hoped to attract 440,000 people in the first year. They got almost double and never fell below 800,000 until COVID hit. In 2012, annual attendance reached one million for the first time.

This success has allowed the museum to add a variety of attractions, including nearly 30 restored aircraft and 60 exhibits, and to be open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The ship also hosts thousands of school children each year for educational programs and sleepovers. It has been the site of hundreds of private events each year – fundraising galas, military ceremonies, memorial services – and numerous public gatherings, including an annual screening of the film “Top Gun”. A college basketball game between San Diego State and Syracuse was played on the flight deck. “American Idol” filmed episodes there.

“Mac has done a difficult job of transforming us from a crude ship into a working public attraction and then turning it into a cherished community asset,” said Karl Zingheim, longtime Midway historian.

McLaughlin said it’s what he’s most proud of, “that most San Diego residents now feel the USS Midway is part of the city’s landscape.”

The USS Midway Museum is moored along the downtown San Diego waterfront, an iconic part of the city's skyline.

The USS Midway Museum is moored along the downtown San Diego waterfront, an iconic part of the city’s skyline.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

He gave credit to others. “So many people were behind us, had the oars in the water,” he said. “The list of people who made all of this possible is very long.”

Museum officials chose his successor: Terry Kraft, a retired Navy rear admiral whose 30 years of service included stints leading an aviation squadron, naval strike groups and aircraft carriers and shore facilities overseas. He also worked in management for defense contractor General Atomics for nearly a decade.

As a flight officer, Kraft was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s for combat missions flown from an aircraft carrier – the Midway.

One of his first major projects will be the development of the long-promised $60 million public park on Navy Pier, which will include a bayside promenade and an amphitheater. Work on Freedom Park is expected to begin next year.

California Daily Newspapers

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