Since leaving south central Tennessee 43 years ago, Oakes has done museum work in Washington D.C., Wisconsin, Utah and New York before taking the helm of Chieftains Museum/ Major Ridge Home in November 2006.
Ruth Demeter, chairman of the Chieftains board, said Oakes’ intelligence and compassion would be sorely missed. “Her depth of caring for Chieftains and the community have helped us grow,” Demeter said.
“We’ve been advertising nationally (for a replacement),” Demeter said, “and we’ve already had several very qualified applicants.” She estimated announcing a new director around mid-September.
With 25 of Oakes’ 43 years in the industry spent at either the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington and the Cradle of Aviation Museum in New York, she said the history of aviation and space would always be very special for her.
“It’s such new history that I had the opportunity to meet the people who actually made the history,” Oakes said. Before she opened the new Air and Space Museum in Washington, she watched Charles Lindbergh climb a ladder to peer into the cockpit of his Spirit of St. Louis, hanging from the rafters of the old Arts and Industries building.
She had to opportunity to meet some of Amelia Earhart’s family and, on a more contemporary note, all of the old Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
“The story we have here at Chieftains is just so compelling,” Oakes said. “It’s such a moving story about one man (Major Ridge) acting on his conscience in a way that went against the grain of a majority of his people, but in a way that he believed was for the good of the people, even though he died for it.”
Oakes said the broader issue of Cherokee removal is such a huge part of what shaped the landscape of the United States.
“The decisions that were made in this house and in other places in Rome really shaped the decisions that led to the forced removal,” Oakes said. “Philosophically The Trail of Tears started here.”
Oakes said the first thing she’s going to do in Pulaski is get her life out of packing bags. She inherited the old family farm, but sold it and bought a home in downtown Pulaski two years ago.
Even after retirement, she won’t be able to get away from Cherokee history. Pulaski is the only place where any two of the five overland trails on the trail of Tears crossed. A group in that community is trying to put together a small interpretive center. “For good or evil, I have let myself be known to them,” Oakes said.
She also wants to make a trip to Venice, Italy, and take a cruise through the Panama Canal. “Locks fascinate me,” Oakes said. “I also plan to visit old friends in some of my former haunts.”
Before leaving, Oakes made a major contribution to the Chieftains Low Country Boil fundraiser. Before she left the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, Oakes obtained commemorative swatches of original aircraft fabric, mounted on paper with sepia tone photos of the aircraft, which will be auctioned at the August event.
One of the swatches is from the Curtiss NC-4, one of the planes commanded by John H, Towers, the Father of Naval Aviation and a native Roman. The group was attempting to make the first Transatlantic crossing in 1919.
She is also donating a swatch from Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega, used in 1932 in the first Transatlantic crossing made by a woman.