About
Carolina Museum of the Marine
Al Gray Civic Institute

A Firm Foundation For The Future

OUR MISSION

The mission of Carolina Museum of the Marine | Al Gray Civic Institute is to honor the legacy of Carolina Marines and Sailors, sustain the ideals that are the foundation of our nation, and inspire principled, committed citizens.

Our History

Originally named Marine Corps Museum of the Carolinas, the organization was founded by MajGen Ray Smith, USMC (Ret) who was the commanding general for Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune from 1997 to 1999. MajGen Smith and his wife, Colleen, wanted to preserve the storied legacy of Carolina Marines and Sailors so they contacted Sergeant Major Joe Houle just before his own retirement. “We wanted someone who understands the Carolina MAGTF,” MajGen Smith said. “And someone who would work tirelessly to make the vision of an enduring tribute a reality,” he added.

Now as Director of Operations and Artifacts, Houle will work with the organization’s first CEO, BGen Kevin Stewart, USMC (Ret), as the organization moves into Phase II:  Construction of the 40,000 square foot Museum and Institute.

“Over the years we have been collecting artifacts for the museum’s exhibits,” Houle said. “Board members CWO5 Lisa Potts, USMC (Ret) and SgtMaj Ray Mackey, USMC (Ret) have worked tirelessly with the organization’s historian, LtCol Lynn “Kim” Kimball, USMC (Ret), and museum archivist and volunteer Frances Hayden to ensure best practices in the accession and care of the artifacts,” he added.

Late in 2021, the state of North Carolina awarded $26 million to the organization for construction of the 40,000-square-foot facility. Local government entities are joining private donors to ensure that the organization has operating capital to oversee and run the project during construction and after its doors open. “We are excited to see this organization moving from grassroots to the national stage,” said Ashley Danielson, Vice President of Development. “We have numerous faithful supporters to which we owe a debt of gratitude.”

Carolina Museum of the Marine

The museum will include displays featuring Expeditionary Warfare and Amphibious Operations, Carolina MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force) Development of Maneuver Warfare Philosophy, Women Marines, Montford Point
Marines, MARSOC (Marine Forces Special Operations Command), Military Working Dogs, and Wounded Warrior Barracks among other firsts and innovations of the Carolinas. “We are honoring Marines and Sailors, and their families, whose service to the nation exemplifies civic commitment in action,” said Acting Board Chair, Mark Cramer.

The museum will highlight the many accomplishments and innovations of Carolina Marines and Sailors and the enduring contributions of their host communities. It will also provide a unique and inspiring new venue for public and private events including military balls, reunions, promotion and retirement ceremonies, weddings, seminars, conferences, symposia, and civic events.

The museum’s plans have stayed the course since 2000 with award-winning architectural and engineering plans already in place. “We are building in two phases,” Mark Cramer said. “Phase One, Reflection and Celebration Park, was opened to the public in May 2016 and gifted to the Department of the Navy in 2018.” The Eagle, Globe and Anchor statue is the most “Instagrammed” site in Onslow County. Hundreds of people—military personnel and civilians—use the park and its world’s largest Eagle, Globe and Anchor statue as the site of promotion and retirement ceremonies, weddings and photo opportunities. Recently, thanks to generous gifts from Byrd Family Foundation, Patriots Walkway was dedicated at the site.

(Photos of architectural rendering are courtesy of CJMW Architecture, Carolina Museum of the Marine | Al Gray Civic Institute)

“Plans for Phase 2, the construction of the 40,000-square-foot Museum and Institute, are now underway,” Mark Cramer said, adding that a Marine veteran legislator was instrumental in backing the project. “We thank dedicated ​North Carolina Senators  Harry Brown and Mike Lazzara and their success in obtaining a $26 million construction grant this year,” he continued.  Lazzara was joined in his efforts by North Carolina State Representatives George Cleveland, Pat McElfraft and Phil Shepard. “We are excited to move forward with this project,” said Cramer, “We will show quite clearly, with our immersive exhibits, the honor, courage and commitment of Carolina Marines and Sailors.” 

The museum will be located at Lejeune Memorial Gardens near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and is anticipated to be a major attraction for the 138,000 Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen serving in the area as well as their families and friends. Houle also expects numerous military and history aficionados as well as tourists to the state’s coastline to visit the museum.

The museum will highlight the many accomplishments and innovations of Carolina Marines and Sailors and the enduring contributions of their host communities. It will also provide a unique and inspiring new venue for public and private events.

Al Gray Civic Institute

Since 1775, the United States Marine Corps has been integral to the security of our country, and integral to its mission are honor, courage and commitment. Marines are inculcated with an understanding of honor and the qualities that define not just a well-formed Marine but a well-formed person and citizen. “Marines demonstrate civic commitment in action as they defend and protect our Constitution,” said General Gray. “We want to showcase their many innovations and accomplishments while teaching to students young and old a basic knowledge and understanding of our government and our individual responsibilities in preserving our democracy for future generations,” he continued. 

With General Gray’s leadership, Board of Directors Acting Chair Mark Cramer, and ethics professor James Danielson, PhD are overseeing development of the curriculum for Al Gray Civic Institute. “Critical Thinking for Civic Engagement,” the Institute’s first offering, has been delivered at Swansboro High School in Swansboro, N.C. and at Camp Johnson to active-duty Marines awaiting MOS training. The 15-hour course is being adapted for online presentation as “The Art of Thinking:  How to Think, Not What to Think.” Other classes under development include: “The Founding Principles of the United States,” “Understanding the American Constitution,” “Leading Self, Leading Others,” “History of Political and Economic Thought” and “Ethics at Home, School and Work.” “The Houle School,” a summer fitness, civics and leadership program for middle and high school students, is under development by George Walls, USMC (Ret) and SgtMaj Joe Houle, USMC (Ret).” The Institute also produces essays in the organization’s monthly newsletter, Front and Center.”

The synergy between the core values of the Marine Corps and the characteristics of a good citizen made sense to the group, and plans began to create and launch the civic institute, now named for its founder, General Al Gray.

General Gray is especially interested in teaching critical thinking which he defines as the study and analysis of problems, issues and facts to develop and form a sound judgement. “It is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-motivated, and self-corrected thinking,” he said.

We want to be prepared to defend our convictions and interests as well as our institutions.” General Gray continued, “We don’t have to take sides concerning political or religious questions which may be in dispute in America. We can endeavor to state as simply as possible those great convictions upon which nearly all Americans agree. These are the simple principles as rules of life, beliefs that secure our order, our justice and our freedom.”