SOUTH PORTLAND – A lifetime’s fascination with military regalia, along with a dogged determination to honor Maine servicemen, will culminate next month in the official opening of the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center, at 50 Peary Terrace in South Portland.

The gallery, founded three years ago by Leon “Lee” Humiston, has been in its present space next to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 832 for almost two years. However, while Humiston has happily given tours to anyone willing to knock on the door, the site has remained under renovation.

Now, that work is complete. The doors will open to regular hours, beginning with a grand celebration on Saturday, June 11.

Spokesmen for Gov. Paul LePage and Secretary of State Charlie Summers have confirmed both men will attend the function. According to Humiston, other VIPs include about a dozen prisoners of war, including some from World War II, and “more than 100” bikers, representing groups such as the Patriot Guard, Rolling Thunder and Combat Veterans.

It’s been a long journey for a collection that has slowly accumulated over the course of a single lifetime.

Humiston says his first memory of his father was as a 4-year-old, fascinated by the brightly colored military ribbons on the veterans’ chest.

“I tried to pick those off before he left for the Pacific,” he recalled, noting that nearly everything in South Portland seemed to revolve around the military at the time, given Liberty Ship construction in the local yards.

“But then around 1947, when the war was over and families started getting tired of everything involved with it, they trashed everything,” said Humiston. “Even then, as they do now, South Portland had one day in the spring when they’d pick up the trash for free, and there were just barrels with swords, flags, helmets, uniforms and everything else that the wives finally convinced their husbands to get rid of.”

Even then, Humiston had a sense of history. He librated as much of the martial refuse as he could, and squirreled it away for safekeeping, with the same reverence, and only slightly more boyish enthusiasm.

“We used to play war, we’d dress up in the uniforms,” he said. “We had 1,800 square-feet in our attic, so we had plenty of room to save stuff and store it away. I had no idea at first that I was preserving history. I just loved the military. I loved anything attached to the military.”

The collection grew every year, on each subsequent “big trash day,” and then on into adulthood, whenever Humiston came across some interesting item.

But, apart from the genesis of his collection, Humiston refuses to discuss himself, or his own 26 years of service in the Air Force.

“This has nothing to do with me or my military service,” said Humiston. “It’s not about my father, or my sons or my brothers. It’s about service to this state and to this country.”

The same is true of South Portland real estate investor Gary Crosby, who in 2009 spent about $800,000 to purchase the VFW hall. Crosby was in the middle of a City Council election at the time, and put together the deal on the condition that nobody breathe a word of his donation.

“He didn’t want anything mentioned about it at all,” said museum preservationist Stephen Popp. “It was just quietly done.”

“There was no political motivation to it,” said Crosby, “just as Lee has made sure there is no political slant on any of the displays. This is just history, a record of what was done, with no comment or justification made concerning the sacrifices people made.”

And while politics are scrubbed as much as possible from the artifacts, they cannot help but speak loudly to the time, and places from which they are drawn.

Among the items on display – a North Vietnamese helmet with a bullet hole marked, “my first kill,” a pair of tiny wooden sandals brought back from the rubble of Hiroshima, and a wooden violin, hand carved by Jackson Clark of Glenburn, a Union soldier who died as a prisoner of war in a Confederate camp.

These items, like many in the new museum, have been donated by Maine soldiers and their families since Humiston first put his collection on display in Old Crow Gallery, owned by Popp.

“I was shocked at how it looked,” recalled Popp. “Every square inch of that gallery was covered with memorabilia. We had 1,700 people come through for that. It was a tremendous time.”

That exhibit led Humiston to secure a city lease on a place in Mill Creek Park, but he quickly outgrew that.

Enter Crosby. With the VFW struggling to maintain its building in the face of declining membership, Crosby purchased the property and gave it to Humiston, with the condition that half be set aside as a permanent home for the soldiers themselves, even as Humiston dedicated the other half to preserving their memory. Meanwhile, Crosby brought in a developer to subdivide the outskirts of the lot into seven housing units.

“I did that to subsidize the cost of the project, although I didn’t break even by any stretch of the imagination,” said Crosby. “I’m still out-of-pocket, but that’s not why I did it. It was just a situation that presented a win for everybody. But, most of all, Lee was a very inspiring person to me. He was doing a very good job with what he was doing and I just felt that if I could give his museum a permanent home, it would be here for generations to come.”

“Really, everybody should see this,” said Crosby, “and I’m so excited to see it come together.”

A small selection of the headgear worn by Maine soldiers, sailors and airmen, on display at the Maine Military Museum, which celebrates its grand opening June 11. (Staff photo by Duke Harrington)Leon “Lee” Humiston, founder of the Maine Military Museum, poses with just a few of the items on display in the gallery at 50 Peary Terrace, in South Portland, which opens June 11. (Staff photo by Duke Harrington)

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