Minnesota community makes veterans memorial a town centerpiece
By MARY LYNN SMITH | Star Tribune | Published: July 18, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — As dawn's faint light broke over Alexandria, Minn., one morning last month, the sound of "Taps" from a lone bugler echoed amid granite monoliths engraved with more than 7,000 names of veterans.
Alexandria — a town of nearly 14,000 in northwestern Minnesota and the Douglas County seat — finally had its own Veterans Memorial Park to honor those who served.
Many smaller towns have memorial parks, albeit modest ones, for their veterans, said Jim Conn, an Air Force Vietnam-era vet.
"They tend to be on the outskirts of town," he said. "Once they're dedicated, people start to forget about them. Weeds start growing up between the cracks."
Conn and a group of local vets decided three years ago that Alexandria needed its own veterans memorial and wanted to do things differently. The memorial would be a town centerpiece that could be visited and not forgotten.
As luck would have it, the city had just the right piece of land — an underutilized city park at W. 8th Avenue and Broadway Street downtown. Even better, the city would still own the land and maintain the park, said Gabe Pipo, a Vietnam Navy vet who chaired the volunteer committee that oversaw the memorial's construction.
With a site chosen, the committee got to work, raising $1.2 million from businesses, community organizations and other donors that allowed construction to begin in August 2019.
"The entire community supported us," Pipo said. Less than a year later, the memorial was finished with plans to dedicate it on July 4, complete with a parade, band and an expected crowd of more than 1,000 people. But with the coronavirus pandemic raging, organizers instead postponed a big celebration for later, when it's safer, and orchestrated a low-key opening on June 26. A 5 a.m. ceremony kept the crowd small.
Pipo can't help but be proud of what a group of volunteer veterans created.
"It's important to honor the people who fought for freedom in this country," he said. "And it will stand there for hundreds of years because it's all in granite."
The new park includes a 9-foot granite replica of the Liberty Bell, a statue of a Civil War Union soldier moved from the Douglas County courthouse lawn, heated bathrooms and a picnic shelter. The names of about 7,400 veterans dating to the Civil War are engraved on upright granite slabs that ring the memorial.
Some memorial parks engrave the names on pavers, Pipo said. "But that doesn't work in Minnesota," he said. Winter, with its cycles of freezing and thawing, can throw pavers out of alignment. "Pretty soon some are higher and some are lower and then you trip over them."
What's more, Pipo and others didn't think it was right to have people step on the names of veterans. For many, the names represent the best of Alexandria -- the veterans who served their country and many who returned home to raise families and build businesses.
Looking closely at the names during a recent visit to the memorial, Conn was pulled back in time.
"One name jumped out at me," he said. "It was one of my dad's best friends after the war."
The memorial isn't just a tribute. It also links generations and draws families together, Conn said.
Before the memorial officially opened, Conn noticed a young woman kneeling beside one of the granite monoliths, her hand atop a name. She was caressing it and weeping, said Conn, whose own voice cracked as recalled the scene.
"It was very touching and very meaningful to me that we allowed her to connect with a loved one," he said. "I think we're really connecting with people."
(c)2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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