The ship wasn’t even here when John “Mac” McLaughlin became the founding president and CEO of the USS Midway Museum in December 2003.
It was a dream, really, with plans so tenuous that organizers had to set aside $500,000 to cover the cost of towing the nearly 60-year-old aircraft carrier out of San Diego if the museum failed.
It didn’t fail. He flourished in one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city (over 18 million visitors and counting) and an icon on the downtown waterfront. Now, nearly 20 years later, McLaughlin has decided it’s time to go. He retires on Wednesday.
“Sometimes you just know,” said the nearly 72-year-old former Navy rear admiral. “It’s time to make way for someone with more energy than this old man who can see the Midway in his next few chapters.”
McLaughlin said he and his wife of 46 years, Nora, are ready to “slow it down a bit” and move to a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina.
You’ll leave behind the world’s most successful floating naval museum, an attraction on par with the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and Balboa Park in rankings by various visitor guides. According tripadvisorit is the fourth most popular museum of any kind in the US.
“Mac came to San Diego on a wing and prayed that this aircraft carrier thing would be a success, and somehow he mustered up the courage to do it,” said John Hawkins, a member of the museum’s organizing committee. She spent 12 years navigating federal, state and local regulations while the decommissioned vessel sat at a Navy shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.
McLaughlin had just retired from the Navy and moved to San Diego with his wife, a Chula Vista native, when he was approached to run Midway.
A former helicopter pilot who had landed once or twice on the 1,000-foot-long aircraft carrier, he was fond of the ship and the idea. San Diego is the birthplace of naval aviation. The first US aircraft carriers had their home port here.
But the prospects were grim.
“We had no money, a lot of debt and no income,” he recalled in an interview on Friday. “No electricity, no water and no exhibits. We had nothing.”
Except volunteers. And that made all the difference, he said. The volunteers found four planes to display. Volunteers helped remove years of rust and piles of bird droppings. They painted and polished. And volunteers came on board as docents, to tell the kind of personal stories that made the museum a piece of living history.
Somehow, it all came together in six months, and Midway opened to the public on June 7, 2004. “We have to earn our place on the coast,” McLaughlin told the Union-Tribune that day. “You earn by providing value and service to the community.”
Within the first hour, 500 people had purchased tickets. That was a sign of things to come.
Museum organizers hoped to attract 440,000 people the first year. They got almost double that, never dipping below 800,000 until COVID hit. In 2012, annual attendance reached one million for the first time.
That success has allowed the museum to add a variety of attractions, including nearly 30 restored aircraft and 60 exhibits, and to be open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The ship also hosts thousands of schoolchildren annually for educational programs and sleepovers. It has been the site of hundreds of private events each year (fundraising galas, military ceremonies, memorial services) and dozens of public gatherings, including an annual screening of the movie “Top Gun.” A college basketball game between San Diego State and Syracuse was played on the flight deck. “American Idol” has filmed episodes there.
“Mac accomplished a challenging task in turning us from a crude ship into a working public attraction, and then turning it into a treasured community asset,” said Karl Zingheim, longtime Midway historian.
McLaughlin said that’s what he’s most proud of, “that most people in San Diego now feel like the USS Midway is part of the landscape of the city.”
He gave credit to others. “So many people were behind us, I had the oars in the water,” she said. “The list of people who made all this happen is very long.”
Museum officials chose his successor: Terry Kraft, a retired Navy rear admiral whose more than 30 years in service included stints in command of an aviation squadron, ship and carrier strike groups, and shore installations in the foreign. He also worked in management at defense contractor General Atomics for nearly a decade.
As a flight officer, Kraft received the Distinguished Flying Cross during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s for combat missions flown from an aircraft carrier: the Midway.
One of his first major projects will be the development of the promised $60 million Midway. public park at Navy Pier which will include a bayfront promenade and amphitheater. Work on Freedom Park is expected to begin next year.