In 2004, Chamber of Commerce weather greeted thousands of visitors to our nation’s capital the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Temperatures were in the 70s and cotton-like clouds dotted a sun-brightened sky above the Mall, a two-mile long path of green that connects the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol building.
Veterans of World War II and their families swarmed the space between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial for the dedication of a seven-acre granite and bronze memorial to the 16 million Americans who served our country during that momentous time.
May 29, 2004, is separated from February 1987 by more than 17 years. That’s how long it took for this memorial to go from dream to dedication.
Seventeen years before on a cold February night in Jerusalem Township, Ohio, a World War II veteran named Roger Durbin interrupted his representative in Congress, Mary Kaptur, while she was eating a plate of Lake Erie perch.
“Why is there no World War II memorial in Washington? he asked.
Kaptur, then a three-term Congresswoman from Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, soon introduced legislation to establish a memorial. Her efforts to walk the idea through the Byzantine ways of representative democracy took four times longer than WWII itself.
Critics argued that the mall suffered from “memorial sprawl,” and that one more monument would clutter up the open space. Debates followed over who would see the project through, how it would be financed and whether the final design was appropriate.
It took 22 public hearings and six years before the memorial’s supporters prevailed. Individuals and corporations raised $195 million to pay for construction. What resulted is 56 columns representing the states and U.S. territories in 1945, two 43-foot arches for the Atlantic and Pacific theaters in which the war was contested and 4,000 stars signifying the 400,000 Americans killed during the war. Three U.S. presidents attended the dedication.
Durbin was an unlikely initiator of all this. He was a high school dropout who enlisted in 1943 at the age of 22 and served as a tank mechanic in General George Patton’s Third Army. Aboard a troop ship headed to Europe he endured seasickness, followed by months of numbing cold and the sight of bodies stacked like wood following the Battle of the Bulge and gaunt survivors of liberated concentration camps.
Upon his return to the United States, he worked as a rural mail carrier. On a trip to Washington in 1961 he saw memorials to other wars, events and people, but little about World War II. In 1966 he returned to Bastogne, Belgium, where he visited a memorial to American war dead erected by the Belgian people.
These sights and a collection of stored-away memories fueled his dream of a memorial to veterans of World War II, who NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw said are among “the greatest generation.”
Following his 1987 conversation with Rep. Kaptur he testified before Congress, delivered emotional speeches and visited the White House and Pentagon.
Is it possible that a single individual can see clearly into the collective psyche of a nation, boil down a dream into a simple question, utter that phrase at an opportune moment and launch a movement that harnesses the collective memories and gratitude of a people to achieve a grand and poignant reality? Can one person make a difference?
Durbin thought so. His vision became his passion, some say an obsession, and this passion joined hands with perseverance to forge a compelling partnership.
If one man can start a memorial movement for a nation, what can a congregation do for a community or an individual for a congregation?
Most of us settle for too little from ourselves. The Bible marches before our eyes women and men whose passion for land, Temple, community, authentic worship, reconciliation or the will of God nudged them to be Johnny one-notes in pursuit of their dream. God uses boys with a lunch, humble small-town girls and mecurial fisherman. You and I are the mustard seeds God sows and grows into a Kingdom.
There is no Hollywood ending to this story. Sixteen million Americans fought in World War II. Less than one-fourth of them are still alive. The youngest veterans of that war are in their late 80s and are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 every day. Many who attended the Memorial Day dedication admitted that their first, fragile visit to the World War II memorial would be their last.
And Roger Durbin? The memorial was scheduled to be completed in 2000. Bureaucratic red tape delayed completion until now. Durbin contracted pancreatic cancer in 1999 and died at age 79. The 59-year wait for a memorial to honor this band of brothers and sisters was four years too long for him.
When actor Tom Hanks was asked to serve as national spokesperson for the fundraising campaign to build this memorial, he readily accepted. His slogan was as simple as Roger Durbin’s 1987 question: “It’s time to say thank you.”
Thank you, Roger Durbin. Thank you one and all.
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.