The Legacy of Mac McLaughlin
The USS Midway Museum was an experiment. And in the minds of some, a very risky one.
After a decade-long effort by the fledgling San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum organization to bring a decommissioned Navy flattop to San Diego as a naval ship museum, the USS Midway arrived in January 2004 to much fanfare. While the excitement and enthusiasm were very high, for those working behind the scenes, the job ahead was equally formidable.
The nearly 60-year-old carrier may have just gotten a fresh coat of paint on its exterior, but there wasn’t much else to offer future museum visitors. Other than a few restored historic military aircraft, the ship lacked just about everything required to become a successful museum including most of the basic necessities like power, water and bathrooms.
The schedule for readying the ship for its public debut left no time for the museum’s overjoyed founders to rest on their laurels. The grand opening was only six months away.
“We were a band of strangers when Midway arrived at Navy Pier,” remembered Scott McGaugh, Midway’s first marketing director who joined the museum’s planning group as a volunteer long before the ship was towed into San Diego Bay.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Riley Mixson, who commanded the USS Midway in the mid-1980s, had served commendably as the museum group’s executive director, but had no intention of staying on as its president and CEO.
It was felt the museum would benefit from its new chief executive officer having senior military experience – an individual who understood what it would take to refurbish a rundown ship, which had been rotting away for the previous 12 years, and turn it into a self-sustaining and successful tourist attraction. Piece of cake.
A search was launched, interviews were conducted and an offer was made. However, the first candidate decided not to accept the CEO position. Time to shift to Plan B.
Mac McLaughlin, who had just retired as the head of the U.S. Naval Reserve Forces, will be the first to tell you he wasn’t Midway’s initial choice. The museum’s new board of directors, however, felt the former two-star admiral was a very strong “second draft pick.”
“In Mac we saw a natural leader and team builder,” recalled Scott. “Overhauling Midway was no more important than building a crew from scratch in six months.”
“Mac has been a perfect CEO for the Midway Museum,” said Malin Burnham, the prominent San Diego philanthropist who became the museum’s board chair shortly before it opened in 2004. “I told him he was building an icon for San Diego. The rest is history.”
Over the last 18 years, with Mac at the helm, Midway has gone from 70,000 tons of rust and peeling paint to the world’s most popular and successful floating naval ship museum. According to Tripadvisor, it remains the number one thing to do in San Diego.
This did not happen because Mac became an overnight museum curator, but because of his vision and the ability to create an embracing culture that quickly put Midway on the path of becoming America’s Living Symbol of Freedom.
“He focused on building a culture and values that have ultimately driven Midway to unimagined success,” said Scott. “From day one to now, he has remained tremendously accessible. The result has been remarkable crew loyalty that has been the bedrock of Midway’s growth to prominence.”
Mac’s 31-year naval career taught him that the best leaders are those who enable others. He believes strongly in the positive and uplifting impact of the servant leader. He’s been known to refer to himself as the CEO: Cheerleading Executive Officer.
“Mac truly understands the power of empowerment,” said Jim Reily, the museum’s docent director who has worked with Mac for more than a dozen years. “He sets directions and then trusts his staff and volunteers to execute. No micromanagement. To me, this has been a key to the museum’s success.”
“He is very good at providing direction to his team and then letting them run,” said Ben Clay, the board chair of the USS Midway Foundation. “Mac provides leadership, states his vision and expects his team to develop and deliver. He readily gives credit to his staff, volunteers and board members.”
Mac’s team often spoke of his instinctive understanding of how important every volunteer and member of the staff was to the museum’s operation.
“I think everyone who had the chance to work alongside Mac felt they have had the unique opportunity to do something that made a difference,” said former Midway education director, Sara Hanscom, who worked with Mac for 18 years. “It didn’t matter who you were or what position you held, whether it be behind-the scenes, front-line, staff or volunteer, he ensured you knew how vital you were to Midway’s mission. Mac has a remarkable way making you feel like you’re a special part of the team.”
Midway’s achievements as a museum, education center, events venue and San Diego icon revolved heavily around the development of a strong and passionate volunteer corps. For Mac, ensuring the nearly 800 volunteers knew they had as much ownership of the museum as the paid staff was critical.
- “That’s my opinion but I’m not sure I agree with it.” (questioning his own opinion)
- “It’s time for me to go simulate working conditions.” (heading to the office)
- “We’ll murder board it.” (staff review before making a decision)
- “I think it’s time for me to pull chocks.” (ready to go home)
- “I need a SITREP.” (an update on the issue)
- “He’s S-I-Q.” (sick in quarters or at home)
- “Give me the latest gouge?” (what’s the scoop)
“Frankly, working with Mac has been a total pleasure and it’s just one of the reasons I continue to be a volunteer,” said Todd Hyde, who has more than 7,300 volunteer hours since becoming a docent in 2011. “By talking with, not at, the docents, he keeps us in the know and makes us feel integral to Midway’s success. We all have ownership. I am very proud to have served with him. He made my Midway days some of the most rewarding times in my life.”
Mac’s proven recipe of caring for and supporting his staff and volunteers translated directly into providing all who visit Midway one of the finest and most unique museum experiences possible.
“He has been a true advocate for our guests,” said Mark Berlin, Midway’s operations director for the last 16 years. “Mac understood that Midway had to be more than just a clubhouse for retired Navy, and he intuitively understood that we needed to connect with a broad audience. He was the right leader in the right place at the right time.”
As Midway’s president and CEO, Mac also represented the museum in the community for nearly two decades. From the Port of San Diego and the County Board of Supervisors to the local chapters of the American Red Cross and Armed Forces YMCA, he made certain that Midway was not only a participant, but a strong supporter.
“He is an outstanding community leader and well respected by many people,” said Sharon Cloward, president of the San Diego Working Waterfront and Association of the Port Tenants. “He knew he had his work cut out for him to ensure the Midway was something the community would be proud of, and he has certainly delivered on his promise. I love how he worked in collaboration with the community.”
In less than two decades, Midway, under Mac’s leadership, has risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of a dilapidated old Navy ship to become one of the most admired and respected museums, of any kind, in the world.
“Mac came to San Diego on a wing and a prayer that this carrier thing might be a success, and somehow, he mustered the courage to do it,” said John Hawkins, a founding member of the museum’s organizing committee and past board chair. “The heart and soul and the character and wisdom of its success is Mac McLaughlin. San Diego and the nation owes him a huge debt of gratitude.”
As Mac retires to the rolling hills of South Carolina, the entire crew of Midway gratefully wishes him Fair Winds & Following Seas.
Voices from the Flight Deck
Reflections from Midway board members, staff and volunteers who have worked with Mac for many years.
“I had the good fortune to work with Mac directly. Mac’s vision, dedication and leadership have been the primary reason that Midway has been successful and has become one of the leading attractions in San Diego and the entire nation. I’m pleased to be his associate and friend.”
– Vince Benstead, museum board member and former board chair
“Mac’s dedication and personality have been the best assets for Midway. Mac will always remain part of the essence of the museum and of course, the Midway Magic.”
– Angie Ginn, an 18-year docent with more than 33,000 volunteer hours
“Mac is very caring and humble leader. He is probably the best boss I’ve had. He is the Midway.”
– Jim Nash, who joined Midway in 2004 and retired as the docent director in 2019
“It’s been a real pleasure to work with Mac. He is a great leader and a real gentleman. Mac is Midway. He built it and it is in his blood.”
– Ronne Froman-Blue, who was a member of the original museum board and former board chair
“The thing I appreciated the most about Mac was that his vision for the museum never varied from the day he was hired until he retired.”
– Rudy Shappee, docent and assistant director of the Midway Institute for Teacher who started volunteering for the museum’s organizing committee in 2001
“Mac has been the ultimate ambassador for the ship and those who work here. He truly values the volunteers and the genuine reflection of the museum mission that they bring and represent. He has a smile for everyone, and I think his expressions of gratitude go a long way.”
– Laurie Switzer, Midway’s director of volunteers for 18 years
“Mac carried out a challenging task in transitioning us from a raw ship, into a functioning public attraction, and then building it up into a cherished community asset. He has been the most decisive individual I have ever met. He is innovative, and often has the simplest and most practical answer to most any question.”
– Karl Zingheim, Midway’s historian since 2004
“Mac’s personality and unique leadership was vital to the success of Midway. His open-door policy, approachability, and transparency created a culture of inclusion and equality amongst the staff and volunteers. We all felt heard, opinions and thoughts valued and respected. An open forum that created camaraderie and memories to last a lifetime.”
– Vanessa Pineda, assistant marketing director who has been with Midway for nearly 16 years.
“I think Midway would not have been nearly as successful if not for Mac. He was the right guy at the right time.”
– Frank Hudson, assistant docent director who started with Midway in 2004
“Mac brought a happy light to the ship. He injected Midway with enthusiastic laughter and joy that was tangible – the real deal. Working for Mac brought me a boatload of pride because he always made people feel special.”
– Jill Hammons, former Midway membership director who worked with Mac for nearly 14 years
“He has been absolutely crucial to the museum’s success. He had a central vision and understanding that the museum must be, above all things, authentic.”
– Margaret Riggs, director of the Midway Sailor program who joined the museum as a volunteer in 2004
“He is funny, irreverent, hard-working, has an amazing knack to work with all levels of people and make it look easy. His investment in Midway is to wear his heart on his sleeve for her. He loves his volunteers and always has high praise for them in keeping this great grey lady running.”
– Karen Garst, Midway’s membership coordinator & veteran liaison since 2009