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Sarasota veterans cemetery gets amphitheater

SARASOTA, Fla. — Patriot Plaza rises from a sprawling construction site at the heart of Sarasota National Cemetery, but it's easy to spot Sandy Beckley.

She's the one in the pink hard hat.

The former cemetery director spent nearly 40 years in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs before becoming a consultant with the Patterson Foundation, which proposed the $10 million amphitheater project.

Patriot Plaza — now scheduled to open June 28 — is the first of its kind, a public-private partnership that could change the face of national cemeteries across the country.

For Beckley, 64, this project is the culmination of a career. She beams when she describes the amphitheater's 50-foot-tall roof being raised into position.

"It was really dramatic," she says. "Seeing it on the ground was one thing; seeing these two cranes lift it into place was another. We just stood there, holding our breaths."

The Patterson Foundation is a $225 million legacy of James and Dorothy Patterson, newspaper heirs who retired to Longboat Key in 1979.

The family has a long history of military service.

Patriarch James Medill was a Chicago newspaper baron who supported the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln — the president who started the concept of veterans cemeteries in 1862.

Debra Jacobs, president of the Patterson Foundation, has been working toward the Patriot Plaza since 2009.

"I'm thrilled that it's marching forward," she says. "This is it — this is the year it will be dedicated."

Beckley was six months from retirement when the foundation approached her about a Sarasota amphitheater project. Perfect timing.

"It was serendipity, cosmic forces, angels turning — whatever phrase you want to use," Jacobs says. "We could not have a finer leader for this initiative. Her experience sets her apart, and she's got a beautiful way of working with people."

Steve Muro, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs at the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., called Patriot Plaza a model for other cemeteries. He described Beckley, who opened national cemeteries in Georgia and Florida, as ideal for the project.

"Opening a cemetery is a tough job," Muro says. "You have to be able to build partnerships with the city, county and state, and you have to work with contractors and build a team. She did a good job with all of that."

Beckley, an Illinois native, had dropped out of college when she went to work at a VA hospital in 1971. A personnel job gave her ulcers, so she transferred to a national cemetery.

"I figured it's got to be quieter," she jokes.

In 1984, Beckley became director of Florence National Cemetery in South Carolina. From there, she went to Florida and Georgia.

Her father was a World War II veteran. He and her mother are buried at the Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola.

Beckley and her husband, a retired contractor, have a home in the Panhandle. They have three children and seven grandchildren.

Her given name is Sandra, but she doesn't use it. She's informal and modest — down to earth, even.

"I'm like the dirt," she tells people. "I'm Sandy."

Her pink hard hat was a gift from contractors she worked with at the Georgia National Cemetery.

"They said they wanted to know when I was on site," she says, laughing. "Now it's just a part of me."

Beckley describes herself as practical rather than visionary.

Consider the design for the Patriot Plaza amphitheater. Visitors may describe it as striking, or inspiring, but she can reduce it to two things:

"Shade and seats."

Beckley still groans at the memory of Sarasota National Cemetery dedication in June of 2008. There was a tent with seats for 1,000, but 3,000 people showed up.

"That was not cool," she says. "That was hot."

Her contributions to Patriot Plaza include the 80-foot flagpole next to the amphitheater. Aluminum would have been cheaper, but she insisted on stainless steel.

"It's very important to me," she says, "that it's stainless steel, so it shines forever, and it's perfect."

She marvels at the details of artwork at Patriot Plaza, which includes statues, inspirational quotes and photographs of veterans and families.

Beckley visits the construction site several times a week. Soon the white framework of the amphitheater roof will be covered in green glass.

She hopes residents and visitors to Sarasota will share her admiration for the place.

"People going down the street — 'Whoa! What's that there?' — are welcome to visit during daylight hours," Beckley says. "We want this to become a destination — you know, 'You need to go and see the amphitheater at Sarasota National Cemetery.' "
 

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