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July 5, 2013

Doctor studies to become battlefield tour guide

In the spotlight

JOHNSTOWN — Southmont resident Dr. Rick Schroeder is a self-proclaimed history buff, and his interest in the Civil War has led him to work toward becoming a licensed tour guide at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Schroeder, who is in practice at Western Pennsylvania Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Inc., said that as a student at the University of Notre Dame he took a U.S. military history class. He recalled the priest who was giving the lecture saying that on Sept. 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam, more American soliders were killed in that one day than during the entire Vietnam War.

“That really resonated with me,” Schroeder, 57, said.

After Schroeder moved to Johnstown in the late 1980s to complete his orthopedic residency, he began making frequent trips to Gettysburg and reading up on the Civil War battle.

“I’ve been lucky enough at the hospital to work with a number of people who share my interest, and we have groups that go out to Gettysburg,” he said. “We’ll hire a guide and study detailed parts like day three of the battle or Union artillery used on the second day.”

With his interest continuing to grow, Schroeder decided to take it to the next level and become a tour guide.

Preparing for the first phase, the written exam, was no easy task.

“It’s a very difficult and detailed exam,” Schroeder said. “I’ve told people it was easier to get board certified in orthopedic surgery than to pass this test.”

The written exam is given once every two years, and Schroeder took the test with 151 other people in December.

He was one of only 20 to pass on the first try.

Phase two of the process involves an oral exam in which potential guides give a mock tour, guiding supervisors to see if they can adequately convey the story of the Battle of Gettysburg.

“You have to be able to tell the story to the average person and not bore them to tears,” Schroeder said. “You become a storyteller.”

Out of the 20 who advanced with Schroeder to the oral exam, only 11 or 12 are expected to become licensed.

“They say you probably wouldn’t pass the first time because there is always something you could present better,” he said.

Would-be guides who don’t pass on the second try must start the whole process again and retake the written exam.

For the oral exam, candidates are given three weeks notice on when they need to be at Gettysburg. Schroeder expects to get the call early next year.

In the meantime, he’s been taking people with him to Gettysburg so he can practice his two-hour tour.

“If I’m lucky enough to pass, I’ll be licensed and can begin giving tours after that,” Schroeder said.

Because of his medical practice, Schroeder would be able to serve only as a part-time guide, meaning he’d be required to do 90 tours a year.

“I’ll have to be out there six to eight weekends a year and probably take a week’s vacation to give tours,” he said.

Although he’s been studying and making trips to Gettysburg for more than 25 years, Schroeder said there is still more to learn.

“The more you go, the more you realize how much you don’t know,” he said. “It’s really special to stand on the ground where everything happened 150 years ago. It’s hard to put into words; it’s almost mystical and spiritual.”

Schroeder believes the Battle of Gettysburg is one of the most important events to happen to the country and said it defined the United States.

“You can’t know what we are about unless you know what we have gone through,” he said.

It’s that belief that motivates Schroeder to continue to learn.

Studying to become a guide has provided the perfect outlet for what he calls an intense hobby.

“I’m excited to have this opportunity and I’ve been working with a great group of people,” he said. “No matter what happens, it’s been a positive experience.”

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