A Lasting Legacy: Former Fort Ward Museum director Wanda Dowell dies at 91

It was in 1965 that Wanda Dowell filled out an application to work for the City of Alexandria. That led to a nearly four-decade career at Fort Ward Museum, retiring in 2002 after transforming the former Union Army installation in the West End of the city.

“I wrote on the application that I was interested in Civil War history,” Dowell recalled when selected as a Living Legend of Alexandria in 2016. “That got the attention of Col. Joseph Mitchell, who was director of the newly formed Fort Ward Museum. Not only did Col. Mitchell hire me, he encouraged me to succeed in a field that at the time was dominated by men.”

The trailblazing Dowell, who was recognized nationally for her decades of preservation efforts, died April 9 from heart failure. She was 91.

Born Wanda Sue Thorpe on April 2, 1930, in Harlan County, Ky., Dowell was the daughter of Clyde and Marie Thorpe. She was raised in a small coal mining town, graduating as valedictorian from Wallins Creek High School in 1948.

After the war, she married James Walker Dowell following his service in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps. Together they moved to Alexandria in 1951 with their one-year-old son, James Donn Dowell.

A tireless worker throughout her life, Dowell found her calling at Fort Ward, the fifth largest fort built to defend Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. It is now called the Flagship of the Defenses of Washington and largely due to Dowell’s efforts is one of the best preserved and interpreted.

“When I first started, nothing was catalogued,” Dowell recalled in 2016. “I began doing an inventory and through classes at the Smithsonian, I learned all I could about how to do exhibits and manage collections for small museums.”

Dowell’s efforts were rewarded in 1981 with her appointment as Director of Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site. It was under Dowell’s tutelage that the museum received accreditation from the American Association of Museums. In the 1990s, Dowell was a founding member of the Virginia Civil War Trails historical association, which today guides visitors to more than 1,200 civil war sites.

Dowell was instrumental in obtaining signage identifying Civil War fort sites that once surrounded Alexandria. Later she collaborated with other city sites in creating an Emergency Disaster Plan for Historic Properties. On 9/11, Dowell kept the museum open to aid anyone in need of help.

Dowell developed a conservation plan for the earthwork fort, one of the first such initiatives developed for earthwork fortifications and was invited to lecture on the topic at an American Association of Museums national conference. She lectured on small museum management topics for the Virginia Association of Museums and The Smithsonian.

Dowell went on to be recognized nationally for her preservation and restoration efforts, and her numerous awards include the prestigious James R. Short Award from the Southeastern Museums Conference for “distinguished lifetime service to the museum profession.” She used her expertise in education and fundraising to develop symposia, historical camp events, programs for children, educational programs and special events.

Following her retirement, Dowell remained a member of the Friends of Fort Ward and served as an officer for the Civil War Roundtable of Alexandria. She was an active member of the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, delivered Meals On Wheels, volunteered at The Clothing Closet for those in need, sang with the Jubilee Singers, participated in mission trips to Cayman Brac and was a volunteer exercise instructor for seniors.

In 2017, Dowell moved to Williamsburg to live with her son and his wife in an active living community. She became a maker of fleece blankets for charity and a seamstress of hundreds of cloth face masks for numerous nonprofit organizations.

Dowell was an active member in James River Baptist Church in Williamsburg, and she continued to be a member of the First Baptist Church of Alexandria.

A memorial service was held April 14 at National Memorial Park Cemetery in Falls Church. A memorial service at James River Baptist in Williamsburg will be held at a later date.

Dowell is survived by her son James and his wife Terry. She is predeceased by her husband James W. Dowell, brother James Thorpe, and parents Clyde and Marie Thorpe. Remembrances in her name can be made to Alice Lloyd College, 100 Purpose Road, Pippa Passes, KY 41844, under the Wanda S. Dowell Endowment Fund.

But it is through Fort Ward where Dowell will be remembered in Alexandria.

“Fort Ward is a unique museum,” Dowell said when honored as a Living Legend. “It is one of the best teaching tools that we have and gives the public a whole new perspective on what happened here. We have a responsibility to see that it is preserved and I am proud that Alexandria interprets our history – the good, the bad and the ugly – with integrity.”

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