Elmer “Bud” Atkinson was a U.S. Army veteran, Philadelphia firefighter and served as president of the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Frankford. He died at age 92.
By William Kenny
A lot of people study history, but Elmer “Bud” Atkinson lived it.
As a teenager, he fought at Normandy and aboard a U.S. Army tank in the Battle of the Bulge, helping the Allies liberate France and eradicate the Nazi threat.
As a Philadelphia firefighter, he served his home city for more than two decades and in 1963 revived a toddler who had nearly drowned in a backyard pool.
And for more than three decades, he served as president of the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Frankford, overseeing the preservation and public display of countless priceless Civil War relics.
On March 11, Atkinson authored the final chapter of his personal history as he passed away at age 92. He would’ve turned 93 on July 4.
Atkinson may be best known to Northeast Philadelphia history buffs as the visionary, along with his wife Margaret, behind the revival of the GAR Museum in the 18th-century John Ruan House at 4278–80 Griscom St. in the early 1980s.
In the decades following the Civil War, Union veterans formed the GAR as a fraternal organization. At one time, there were 700,000 members nationally. Philadelphia once boasted 54 GAR posts. But as members died, the posts disbanded and often left their vast collections of war-related memorabilia and records to surviving posts.
Philly’s GAR Post 2 was one of the last survivors. When it folded in 1926, descendants of its members formed the GAR Museum to preserve the collections.
The museum occupied the former Post 2 hall at 12th and Spring Garden originally, then moved to Frankford in 1958. By the late 1970s, the museum found itself in dire economic straits and asked the Atkinsons to direct its revival.
Two of Bud Atkinson’s great-grandfathers fought for the Union in the Civil War, while several of Margaret’s ancestors also saw action. The couple worked with a handful of dedicated volunteers to renovate the museum and open it to the public with attractions ranging from a strip of Abraham Lincoln’s blood-stained pillow case, to Gen. George G. Meade’s Gettysburg battle hat, to the mounted head of Meade’s legendary battle horse Old Baldy.
The museum still opens for public visits on Sunday and Tuesday afternoons and is the only active Civil War museum in Philadelphia.
Bud Atkinson was born on July 4, 1924, and a lifelong Philadelphia resident. He enlisted in the Army after the Pearl Harbor attack and was deployed to England. He took part in the Normandy invasion and served in a roving tank unit that battled across France and paraded past the Arc de Triomphe after the liberation of Paris.
Atkinson was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, but continued to serve in the active Army reserves for 20 years following the war.
When he returned to Philadelphia, he joined the fire department and served 24 years, including 10 on a rescue squad. He received a “persistence in aid” award in 1963 after saving a toddler from near drowning.
As a descendant of Civil War soldiers, Atkinson served in many local, state and national offices of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He became its national commander in 1992.
Atkinson was also co-founder of the 28th PA Volunteer Infantry, a Civil War reenactment group, and helped organize the annual reenactment at Neshaminy State Park. He also served on the board of the Frankford Historical Society and was a member or supporter of the Disabled American Veterans, National Rifle Association and American Legion. He was a Boy Scouts merit badge counselor and hunter safety instructor for the State of Pennsylvania.
Atkinson is survived by his wife, Margaret; sons Frank and Richard; daughter Margaret; 10 grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and brother John. He was preceded in death by siblings Clare and Frank.
He was interred on Tuesday at Washington Crossing National Cemetery. ••