Matt VanAcker and his team at Michigan state Capitol Tours somehow balance not only preserving history but also presenting it to millions of people every single year.
In this episode, Matt shares with us:
- Some of forward thinking legislation that Michigan Enacted Before Any Other State
- How his team strives to provide everyone, independent of their political views, a wonderful experience at the Capitol
- How his team is working to preserve even more of Michigan’s Rich History
Matt VanAcker: we really leave live and breathe on our nonpartisan status here. It’s important to us that every guest that comes into the capitol has an equally wonderful experience and can be guaranteed that our staff are not gonna try to share their political views on. Proposals or on legislators or candidates that are running for office.
Cliff Duvernois: So what makes Michigan a great state? I’m glad you asked.
Cliff Duvernois: My name is Cliff Duvernois and I’m on a quest to answer that exact question. After 20 years, I’ve returned to my native Michigan, and I’m looking to reconnect with my home state. I’m talking to the people who are behind Michigan’s great businesses and top destinations, the same people who work hard every day to make our lives a little bit brighter.
Cliff Duvernois: And you Michigander are coming along for the ride.
Cliff Duvernois: This is the Call of Leadership podcast.
Cliff Duvernois: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of the Call of Leadership podcast. I’m your host, Cliff Duvernois. And today we are sitting with Matthew Vanacker. He is the director of Tour and Information Service chair of Say the Flags, as well as the Michigan State Capital Commission. Now, you probably remember at some point in time in grade school that you took a tour of the Capital building, and if you did, odds.
Cliff Duvernois: Matthew was the guy who made that happen. He is actually in charge of all the tours that happened here in the capital and is just an extraordinary guy, and we just spent a couple hours walking around the Capitol building. It’s amazing. So anyways, let’s welcome to the show Matt Vanacker. Matt, how are you?
Cliff Duvernois: Oh,
Matt VanAcker: Oh, I’m wonderful. Thank you, cliff.
Cliff Duvernois: Hello everyone and welcome to Ordinary People, extraordinary Things. I’m your host, Cliff DuVernois. And if you’ve ever taken a tour of the Capital Building before, I’m sitting with a gentleman today who probably made that happen, probably coordinated it with all of his, uh, with all of his people because this is what he’s really in charge of.
Cliff Duvernois: Uh, he is the director of Tour and Information Service Chair of Save the Flags, Michigan State Capital. And that is Matthew Vanacker. Matt, how are
Cliff Duvernois: you?
Matt VanAcker: are you? I’m great, cliff. Thank you for having me.
Cliff Duvernois: you. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up.
Matt VanAcker: Yeah, so I grew up here in Lansing, uh, literally in the, the long morning shadow, if you will, of this grand state capital, um, on the west side of town. Went to Michigan State University where I received my degree in, in history education.
Matt VanAcker: And, uh, my intent back then was to teach high school history to, um, Wonderful students. Sadly when I graduated and got my degree, there were a lot of, uh, history teachers and not too many jobs for all of us. So I was doing some substitute teaching and literally saw an ad that ran in our local paper looking for volunteers to, uh, conduct tours of the state capital that had just recently been restored.
Matt VanAcker: It was about 30 years ago, and I jumped at the opportunity, uh, interviewed for a job as a docent, a volunteer. And did that for several years while I was substitute teaching in classrooms. And just realized this was the place I wanted to be and things worked out really well for me. A positioned opened with the state of Michigan and I started in as a, an educator tour guide to the capital.
Matt VanAcker: And, um, through the years, through pure stubbornness probably more than anything, managed to, to rise up to the director’s position and. It’s just been a wonderful career, a wonderful place to make a career. Anyone that’s interested in history this has just been a fabulous opportunity. I’ve loved every minute of it.
Cliff Duvernois: So what is it about history that fascinates you so
Cliff Duvernois: much?
Matt VanAcker: You know, I started as a youngster being interested in particular in Civil War history. And one of the first books I read, first history books I read was about a regimen from Wisconsin the eighth Wisconsin Infantry that, um, went into battle with a mascot, with a bald eagle as their mascot, literally tethered to a long perch, and it went into combat with them.
Matt VanAcker: And it just, it peaked my interest I think in the Civil War in particular. But, um, growing up in Lansing my parents were really big about promoting the interests that that we children had. And so my mother brought me down for a tour of the capital when I was four years old. It was one of my earliest childhood memories was seeing this building.
Matt VanAcker: I, uh, albeit with my older brother’s Cub Scout group. I think I was kind of a tag tour, but it made a really lasting impression on me even at that young age. And To see the original Civil War battle flags that were on display in the building the monuments on the grounds to the capital.
Matt VanAcker: It just, it really pulled me in. And, um, I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I’ll be quite honest, and I hope I don’t offend any of your listeners by saying this, I don’t get people that don’t like history. It’s just, it’s so much of who we are and, and a grasp of history is so important to our future as a nation and as a.
Matt VanAcker: and I know this building is literally dripping with history and I wanna make sure that we dive into that a little bit more. What I would like to do is talk a little bit, you were sharing before about how you came here and you applied for initially a volunteer job, and then you just started working here, and then an opportunity came for you to actually have a job here and start working here full time.
Cliff Duvernois: What was it about working at the Capital building that said, you know what, I can make a career out
Matt VanAcker: six? Yeah. You know, my first day of work as a least employee initially when I was hired in, I was hired in contractually as a least employee. So not actually a state employee. But, um, my first day was a Huge uh, KKK rally
Matt VanAcker: place on the front lawn and our staff was there to, um, both protect the rights of the kkk, to have a rally and to use the Capitol as a public forum, but also to protect the protestors that were here and to make sure that no one’s rights are being violated and.
Matt VanAcker: We don’t always agree with groups that have events and rallies on the, on the Capitol lawn. But that’s not really our job. Our job is to make sure that their rights are not infringed upon and that they have equal rights as other groups do. So that was literally my first day working a contractual, as a contractual employee, was to come in for that rally.
Matt VanAcker: And then my first day as a state employee when I was hired in early the next year was the inauguration of Governor John Eer. I was here and both of those events were remarkable, you know, and just to be able to play a small role in, in making sure that those events took place here and safely.
Matt VanAcker: And yeah, it’s kind of an looking back on it, it was a couple of interesting days to start employment here at the Capital. And it is just, yeah, it’s an fascinating building to work in. There’s not a day that goes by. That something interesting doesn’t happen. Maybe something unexpected that happens.
Matt VanAcker: And, and I’ll admit the ability to meet people that you read about in the news. I mean, to have a governor know me by my first name I’ll admit there’s a little bit of a, um, bragging, A little bit, yeah. You know, and it’s, um, it’s just. It’s really, my wife will say, you know, we’ll see, watch the evening news. And she’ll say, well, do you know that person?
Matt VanAcker: I said, oh yeah. I said, you know, I know them pretty well. And just from being the exposure we have to people that are making really important decisions on the course of the state of Michigan yeah, it’s just a fascinating place to be.
Matt VanAcker: I know before when you were talking about the KKK rally happening outside and everything else like that, and you mentioned that you don’t hold any views on that as far as like being partisan and we were talking about this before about how you and your organization really has to be very.
Matt VanAcker: Partisan on all these issues, political party affiliations, whether you support a proposal or anything along those lines. Talk to us a little bit about walking that
Matt VanAcker: anything. Yeah, we really leave live and breathe on our nonpartisan status here. It’s important to us that every guest that comes into the capitol has an equally wonderful experience and can be guaranteed that our staff are not gonna try to share their political views on. Proposals or on legislators or candidates that are running for office.
Matt VanAcker: And equally important is a legislator who’s been elected to office here can be absolutely certain that groups that come into the Lansing to see the capital, their constituents from their district are gonna be guaranteed a nonpartisan tour of the capital. We’re gonna share with them capital facts and history, and talk about how bills become law.
Matt VanAcker: In a very nonpartisan manner. That’s important to us. We view our roles as educators here as being very important. And, um, I think the average year, um, we have the opportunity to share tours with a lot of our third and fourth grade audiences, and we can do that in a nonpartisan way. And, and it’s really, I.
Cliff Duvernois: and speaking of tours, how many tours do you have going through here on
Cliff Duvernois: any
Matt VanAcker: did? Yeah, so pre covid we were on average annually providing full one hour tours to approximately 110,000 guests. Um, yeah. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with the numbers and the quality of the experience. Last time I checked, I think that puts us in the top six in the nation as far as volume of visitors go to state capitals which I’m very proud of.
Matt VanAcker: We have a really, I was mentioning this to you earlier when we were out in the building. We have a really wonderful partnership with the education community in Michigan. Third and fourth grade teachers recognize a really good way of them to be able to acquire their content expectations for teaching Michigan history and the legislative process is by booking a tour with us.
Matt VanAcker: Our staff also books the majority of the tours that go through the state historical museum, just a few blocks west of the capital. So a lot of groups that are coming to see us. So going to the state museum. So in one visit to Lansing, they’re gonna get information about capital history, uh, the legislative process, the branches of government.
Matt VanAcker: They’re also gonna get a really big component by their visit to the state historical museum.
Cliff Duvernois: And we’re talking about tours from all areas of Michigan, upper and
Matt VanAcker: Yeah, all areas. I granted I wish we could get a few more visitors from our friends north of the bridge, but the logistics of a visit to Lansing make it a little complicated. It. Typically involves an overnight for those students. But yes, we get groups from the Upper Peninsula and really all over the lower Peninsula.
Matt VanAcker: Groups that come to see us typically book their tours one full year in advance to make sure that they have the opportunity. And literally at eight 30 when our we’re scheduling for that day next year, our phones are typically ringing off the. With teachers that wanna book that day next year which we’re, I’m really proud of and, and really thrilled that people wanna come see us.
Matt VanAcker: Um, you know, periodically I’m approached by people that want us to advertise, you know, in their magazines or in their, their tourism publications. And we’ve never had to. I mean, it just, the tour sells itself and a word of mouth. And we have teachers that have been coming to us for 30 years, and many of them I know by their first name, you know, because I’ve been working with ’em for the last 30 years and coordinating their tours here in Lansing.
Matt VanAcker: So it’s just, uh, yeah, it’s, it’s an incredible opportunity. I had concerns when Covid hit that I would look back at the glory days and think, boy, we’ll never be able to get back to that again. But we’ve been like a lot of other people sort of climbing out of the covid hole. And we’re getting our numbers back up.
Matt VanAcker: We’re not quite at full capacity yet, but we’re working on getting all those visitors back.
Cliff Duvernois: wonderful and on the topic of glory days, I wanna make sure that we explore some of these these interesting footnotes in Michigan history. But first, we’re gonna take a quick 62nd break to you thank our sponsors.
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Cliff Duvernois: Just go to call of leadership.com/join The link is in the show notes down below and now back to the show.
Cliff Duvernois: Hello everyone and welcome back. I’m talking with Matt Vanacker and we’re sitting inside of the state capital right now. And Matt, what I wanna do is I want to explore, cuz there, there’s so much history here. So much has happened within. The walls of the state capital. And I know that there’s no way on the planet that we could cover everything that has happened here.
Cliff Duvernois: I mean, the place is just beautiful. So obviously for anybody in our audience, go take a tour.
Cliff Duvernois: It’s definitely worth it, even if you did take it back in third grade. The question that I got for you is you were sharing some very interesting, uh, facts with us about some of the things that Michigan has done That was, literally like starting, it seemed like really starting around the Civil War.
Cliff Duvernois: Kind of going forward that Michigan really was on the front of a lot of social issues that were happening in the nation before a lot of the other states started catching up and even the federal laws started to change. So why don’t you share with us like some of those things that come to mind that you, that, that Michigan was like first for?
Matt VanAcker: Oh, sure. Thank you for the question. So as educators here, I suppose most of our conversations about first in, in US or state history are sparked by portraits that we have in the building of really famous people that, that help coordinate and organize those first things.
Matt VanAcker: For Michigan uh, chief among them first to come to mind is, uh, former governor Austin Blair, whose statue is in front of our capital. There’s only one individual that’s honored on the lawn of the state capital, and that’s Austin Blair. And his statue was erected, um, shortly after he died in 1898. So Blair was from Jackson, Michigan from New York originally, but settled in Jackson, Michigan was a founding father of the National Republican Party.
Matt VanAcker: Which had its roots in Jackson leading abolitionist nationally recognized for his work in ending slavery in the country prior to enduring and after the Civil War. Also was a proponent and campaign to end capital punishment in the state. Uh, Michigan was the first democratically elected government in the English speaking world to ban the death penalty, and that was Austin Blair who championed that cause.
Matt VanAcker: Worked very early. To have the word white removed from the Michigan Constitution, and he was not successful in that attempt. But had he been successful, it would’ve allowed black men in Michigan the right to vote well before the Civil War. He also, um, was a suffragist for women’s rights, including the right to vote.
Matt VanAcker: And keep in mind, this is in the 1860s when he was serving as governor of the. and, um, one of the more remarkable things that he championed that a lot of people don’t know about were the, um, personal liberty bills in Michigan that were passed by the legislature in 1855. These personal liberty bills basically nullified the fugitive slave law that had been passed in 1850, which made it illegal to harbor or to assist the escape of fugitive slaves.
Matt VanAcker: It was a federal law and Michigan and a number of other northern states also passed what the southern state called states called the nullification bills. When South Carolina secedes from the Union, among their reasons for leaving the union are the nullification laws in the northern states. And state listing the state of Michigan.
Matt VanAcker: So, Blair was an incredible individual. You can’t tell. He is one of my favorites. Um, I don’t really have favorites going back to our nonpartisan status here, but historically he’s just a really was an incredible individual. We have a portrait in the Senate Chamber of, of McCall Hamilton, who was Michigan’s first female legislator, was elected to the Michigan Senate in 1920 and paved the way for many other female legislators and governors that have come after her.
Matt VanAcker: And, um, she was elected literally the year that the 19th Amendment was ratified to the US Constitution finally allowing women equal rights in, in the voting sphere anyway, in the right to vote. And nationally a number of other. Um, in the capital we have a wonderful, a fairly new portrait that we commissioned of representative William Webb Ferguson.
Matt VanAcker: Uh, Mr. Ferguson was Michigan’s first African American legislator, was elected in 1892 to the House of Representatives and his portrait, as I shared with you and we toured. The capital is in really close proximity to the old Supreme Court chambers on the third floor. No small coincidence. Purposely picked that position for Ferguson’s portrait because two years prior to him being elected to the house in 1890, he had a landmark court case that was heard in the old Supreme Court Chamber involving segregation.
Matt VanAcker: Right in. Well, yeah, right in this building, 1892. And his court case, um, involved segregation his right to have dinner in a Detroit restaurant. He and a friend were refused service because of the color of their skin. No other reason forced to eat in the saloon, uh, the segregated portion of the restaurant.
Matt VanAcker: This took place in northern State, a state that had sent 90,000 boys to the battlefields of the Civil War. To try to end that kind of hatred and discrimination. And so he sued the restaurant owner and five justices serving on the Supreme Court at the time ruled unanimously in his favor. And that court case set legal precedent in 1890 in Michigan.
Matt VanAcker: That
Matt VanAcker: Separate would.
Matt VanAcker: Separate would not be equal in Michigan. And this took place at a time when a lot of other southern, northern and federal courts were not ruling in favor of plaintiffs. So it really set a precedent very early on in the state and recognizing sadly, that discrimination, segregation, and some aspects still takes place in Michigan, but legally that set the, the, uh, the.
Cliff Duvernois: Wonderful. What I would like to do is I’d like to talk about some of the, and it’s always great to take a look. I mean, there’s just so much history here. It’s just, it’s crazy. I could talk to you forever just about the Civil War parts of this. This is wonderful. But I do want to tie it in because one of the very first things that you showed us when we came in here was doing flag restoration here on premises.
Cliff Duvernois: That blew me away, cuz I always thought that was done in some kind of top secret facility somewhere. But you have it on display where people can go by and actually see workers. You know, laboring very hard, diligently on restoring these flags. So talk to us a little bit about
Matt VanAcker: that. Yeah, no, I’d be pleased to. So we’re, um, In a portion of the capital now that we call Heritage Hall, which was constructed and open just this past July, on July 5th, 2022. And it’s a 40,000 square foot facility and a part of the, um, facility here.
Matt VanAcker: We were able to build and install a state of the art conservation laboratory. We have incredible artifact collections here in the capital, including wonderful. Original portraits and frames pieces of capital memorabilia furniture from its original construction, in my opinion. Chief among the collections though is a really incredible battle flag collection, 240 flags.
Matt VanAcker: That were carried by Michigan soldiers in the Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I. For years, these flags were housed in the rotunda of the capital. Some of your listeners may remember seeing them there. During the restoration, a, a difficult decision was made to remove the battle flag collection.
Matt VanAcker: We partnered with the State Historical Museum. We partner with our friends over there on a number of projects. They provided a really wonderful state of. Flag storage, archival storage space. So the flag collection is kept at the museum, but for the first time ever with the construction of this new facility we’ve actually are able to bring battle flags over to our Heritage Hall Conservation Lab.
Matt VanAcker: I was very fortunate in being able to have two of our staff trained last summer with the nation’s leading battle flag conservator learning the techniques and process for properly caring for the original battle flags. So yeah, first time ever we’re conducting onsite conservation here at the capital and.
Matt VanAcker: Literally bringing flags back to their original home. Our staff is stabilizing them and making it, uh, possible to view them. Part of the conservation lab, as you referenced, we were able to install a viewing window so any guests that come to the capital will be able to see at least one of our battle flags on display.
Matt VanAcker: And, uh, if the timing is right, actually be able to see some of our staff in the conservation lab, um, properly caring for that battle.
Cliff Duvernois: And of course, what I love purely selfishly speaking, is the fact that each one of these flags has its own story behind it. But more importantly, like we were discussing there even impacting today. So we were talking about how some of these were regimen flags that those same units that exist to this
Cliff Duvernois: day
Matt VanAcker: yeah. about.
Matt VanAcker: that. Sure. So we have, military organizations, a number of what we call descendant organizations of the Michigan National Guard that can trace their lineage back to regiments that formed during the Civil War. Uh, some going back to the third Michigan Infantry Regimen, which formed in Grand Rapids and then descended organizations from the third that fought in the, um, Spanish American War.
Matt VanAcker: World War I. We actually have regiments from Michigan that fought in Northern Russia against the Bolick
Matt VanAcker: army,
Cliff Duvernois: I forgot about that.
Matt VanAcker: the famed polar bears, and they were selected from Michigan because the authorities assumed that if they were raised in Michigan, they would be used to the cold weather that they’d be exposed to in Northern Russia.
Matt VanAcker: So the polar bear units. Flags that were carried by polar bear regiments in Northern Russia. We have the first, uh, world War I collection, the first flags to go into occupied German territory and World War I flags of the Red Arrow division, the Fame 32nd division, and the, given the name the Red Arrow Division because they said they fought through the enemy lines and shot through the enemy lines like a red hot.
Matt VanAcker: The French referred to them as Lele, the terrible ones because of the way they fought. So a really incredible collection. The Civil War flags though, in particular, actually saw combat. I mean, they went out into the battles with the men. They served as a rallying point for the troops in combat. Confed.
Matt VanAcker: Soldiers recognized the quickest way to dishearten the union troops would be by shooting the man who was carrying the colors, or even better yet, capturing that union flag. And of course, the union troops recognized this of the confederate flags also. So it became a very deadly game, if you will, of capture the flag during the Civil War.
Matt VanAcker: And the game has its roots in the Civil War. Um, so the flag stood as a, a rallying. For the troops, but the troops also had an incredible emotional attachment to their battle flags. Many of these flags were presented to them by the communities in which they formed, sometimes by their wives and daughters and the ladies of the community.
Matt VanAcker: Some of the flags were lovingly handon by the ladies of the communities and embroidered and presented to the men. So the flag. Had a connection to the communities. They made promises when they received these battle flags before they marched off to battle they made vows that this flag will become the Paul, the funeral garment of the regimen before we surrender it to the enemy.
Matt VanAcker: So every time they looked at that flag in combat, they were reminded of the promises they made on the, that day of the presentation of the flags and, and reminded of the folks that they left back.
Cliff Duvernois: And I know you mentioned this before, but I, I just wanna pull out this, this one sentence that you said, flags are handmade.
Matt VanAcker: Yeah,
Matt VanAcker: yeah, yeah. Some of the flags were literally lovingly embroidered by the ladies of the communities. Um, others were procured through Army channels, through depots and even purchased. Tiffany was a company that supplied flags to some of the troops during the, the Civil War. But to have that personal connection.
Matt VanAcker: I mean, I cover myself up during the winter months with a quilt that my mom hands own with her sisters, and it reminds me every time I wrap it around me of the love that she put into making that. And really the battle flags, the men had the same kind of emotional attachment to them,
Cliff Duvernois: You know, my mother made this, my sister made this, you know, my cousin made
Cliff Duvernois: this. Whatever that is. See, now this is where I could talk to you about this all. Because there’s just so much history. This is just absolutely amazing. And I do wanna say for our audience that when Matt was talking about the polar bears earlier if you go back and listen to the interview with John Ryder from the Heroes Musician heroes Museum outta Frankenmuth, Michigan, he talked about that quite extensively.
Cliff Duvernois: So I will have that link down in the show notes down below for sure. Matt, if somebody’s listening to this interview right now and they. Follow what’s going on online with regards to, you know, the capital, maybe taking a tour, whatever it is.
Cliff Duvernois: What would be the best way for
Matt VanAcker: Yeah, honestly, it’s real simple. Google in Michigan state capital and it’s, or use whatever search engine you use and it’s gonna, it’s gonna pop up. And, um, we have connecting links. We have videos online that you can watch. An opportunity presented itself to us. I hate to refer to the horrible.
Matt VanAcker: Covid pandemic as an opportunity, but because we were limited and onsite guests, it allowed our staff the opportunity to do some really incredible things with video tours. We talked about this earlier. We jumped into the virtual world with Zoom tours and converted most of on our onsite experiences to, to virtual tours, you know, using Zoom as.
Matt VanAcker: An avenue, for supplying that. But we also were able to put up a lot of content on our social media sites and on YouTube, so you can watch a video of one of my staff interviewing the folks that clean the chamber chandeliers once a year. There’s a tour of the Dome, which is not accessible anymore to the general public, but we got permission to go up into the dome and it’s actually me you’ll be stuck with if you watch that.
Matt VanAcker: Uh, me giving a tour of the dome of the building in depth information about some of the portraits and the collection that we have here. A Grounds Tour, uh, a Civil War tour that concentrates, you know, on. This building’s connection to the Civil War and to some of the occupants that were here after the war.
Matt VanAcker: Most of our legislators were, were veterans of the Union Army, you know, that served here in the legislature in this building. So, yeah, so check us out. You know, it’s pretty, pretty easy to get to. We have a link for our battle flag collection. You can see images of each of the flags in the collection and some limited histories that we have available.
Cliff Duvernois: Awesome. And for our audience, we will have all those links in the show notes down below. Matt, it’s been a real treat, just hanging out with you this afternoon and, uh, chatting with you about the history of the capital building. So thank you so much for taking time to talk with
Matt VanAcker: afternoon. Oh, thank you so much for inviting me, cliff, and come see us. We’d love to have you. I think you won’t regret taking the time to come to Lansing to see our building.
Cliff Duvernois: Definitely not.