Volunteer Spotlight: Jack Sheehan

I’m genetically predisposed to be a docent because of my Irish background. I just love to tell stories to people about these things and get them excited about this region’s incredible history.

– Jack Sheehan, volunteer docent

Jack Sheehan, History Center and Fort Pitt Museum docent, showing a school tour the Fort Pitt diorama.
Jack Sheehan, History Center and Fort Pitt Museum docent, showing a school tour the Fort Pitt diorama.

Jack Sheehan signed up to be a Heinz History Center docent in 2005. Since then, he has enjoyed telling stories about the various objects and exhibits at both the Heinz History Center and the Fort Pitt Museum and has logged over 3,500 volunteer hours.

Jack grew up in Connecticut and entered the Army as a second lieutenant after graduating from the University of Connecticut with an engineering degree. He was assigned the command of an armored cavalry platoon at Fort Knox for two years and then the Army funded his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at New Mexico State University. “They don’t give anything away for free,” Jack said. “Just before I graduated, they notified me and said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected to go to Vietnam.’”

While in Vietnam, Jack was a logistical advisor to a province chief. After one year, his next assignment was project engineer with the Army Material Command headquarters in Washington D.C. The command was responsible for developing new weapons and tank/automotive systems and was also charged with rapid response to emergency requests from Vietnam. One request was the development of a fire suppression system to protect crew members in armored personnel carriers from a fuel tank explosion caused by enemy fire. Jack led a team that successfully designed, developed, and tested a system that met all the requirements in 6 months.

Leaving the service after nine years, Jack was working at Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh when the personnel department received a letter forwarded by his old team. The letter explained that one of the first fire suppression systems installed had suffered a direct hit in the fuel tank. “They forwarded a letter that was sent to my team congratulating us,” Jack said. “They had actually had an incident in Vietnam and there was no loss of life. I still have that letter.”

Jack worked in the banking sector in Pittsburgh for 28 years, earning an MBA in the process. He finished his business career as a senior consultant with an Altoona firm and finally retired at age 67. “And then my wife informed me that I couldn’t hang around the house,” Jack said. “Which apparently all women know but the guys never know until it’s too late. I think it’s written in fine print in the marriage contract, right down there in the corner: ‘You cannot hang around the house when you’re retired.’”

Jack Sheehan, History Center and Fort Pitt Museum docent, with a Girl Scout troop at the Fort Pitt Museum.
Jack Sheehan, History Center and Fort Pitt Museum docent, with a Girl Scout troop at the Fort Pitt Museum.

Shortly thereafter, Alan Brodski, a friend and docent at the Heinz History Center, showed Jack around the museum. “And I don’t know how it happened, we just ended up in Sandra Baker’s office,” Jack said. “Well, you couldn’t turn Sandra down.” Sandra Baker was the beloved volunteer program director who told Jack that the Heinz History Center needed him as he was good docent material. “Next thing I know, I’m in docent school reading about the French & Indian War and it was amazing. This thing is what America is built on and the whole deal is wrapped up in this thing that starts right down here. So I was excited.” Jack had already been volunteering for five years when the Fort Pitt Museum reopened under the Heinz History Center in 2010. Since then, Jack has been conducting tours and sharing his enthusiasm for Pittsburgh history at both sites.

In addition, Jack participates in the Heinz History Center’s Ambassador Program, which involves traveling and presenting at different locations, as well as the new Veterans Experience Class that allows students to interact with veterans from different wars, including Vietnam. When asked what stories he tells, Jack said, “If you want to be killing enemy soldiers, you’re better off with a video game. It’s an amazingly boring place [the military] with little tiny pieces of complete chaos; 99.99% is just doing a daily job. And I tell them about how many opportunities there are in the military. I think, for the first time, they see the military service in a different light.”

When asked what he would say to someone who was considering volunteering at the Heinz History Center, Jack said, “The people here are tremendous and they’re so appreciative. Everyone says thank you and that’s all it takes. The trouble with getting old is you start feeling useless, and this isn’t useless.”

Jack can be found giving tours and talking to visitors at both the Heinz History Center and the Fort Pitt Museum often and he added, “This [the French & Indian War] was the starting point. And it’s one of the most interesting stories you can tell.”

Kathleen McLean is the education manager at the Fort Pitt Museum.

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