John Hanson remembers a time, about 10 years ago, when he and two other veterans got to talking at a motorcycle show where they were displaying their bikes.

“Don Purpur – he didn’t mince words – said, ‘Why the hell doesn’t Grand Forks have a veterans memorial?’ ” said Hanson, who responded that, yes, Grand Forks did have a memorial, albeit a small one.

“It’s a small gravestone on the courthouse grounds that you can see if you brush away the branches,” he told Purpur.

Roger Westerso, a Vietnam-era vet Hanson and Purpur had befriended, also offered ideas about a memorial, including a wall with images and five towers to represent the branches of the U.S. Armed Services.

The ideas have become a reality. Veterans Memorial Park will be formally dedicated on the 20th anniversary of one of the most horrific attacks ever perpetrated on the United States homeland.

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The ceremony begins at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11. The park is located at the intersection of 24th Avenue South and 34th Street – the actual address is 2357 S. 34th St. The 6.2-acre-park will be officially turned over to the Grand Forks Park District.

Before the event, guests can expect to hear patriotic music and walk through a flag line, staged by the Patriot Guard, to the seating area.

During the ceremony, retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Al Palmer, chairman of the committee working to develop the park, will be among the speakers. His remarks will include a history of the project and a remembrance of Sept. 11, 2001 – a day that rocked America to its core.

Veterans representing every military branch and each of the U.S. military combat engagements from World War II will participate in the ribbon-cutting. They are: Anna Walker, Grand Forks, U.S. Army, WWII; Suzanne Kime, Grand Forks, U.S. Navy, Korea; William Lembke, Grand Forks, U.S. Marines, Vietnam; Jerry Johnson, Grand Forks, Coast Guard, Vietnam; Jay Bignornia, Emerado, N.D., Air Force, Operation Enduring Freedom; and Casey Hillebrand, Grand Forks, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I still can’t believe it,” Hanson said, as he surveyed the park Friday, Sept. 3. “It’s unbelievable to me yet. It’s all been done with community donations and a good team.”

Hanson is the VFW’s national legislative officer for North Dakota, commander of VFW Post 1874 in Grand Forks and a past state VFW commander.

“It’s an accomplishment of everyone involved,” Hanson said. “It’s a milestone of my life.”

Leadership

Fueled by a passion for the military and respect for those who serve and sacrifice for this country, the idea to build a veterans memorial in Grand Forks was not much more than a dream until Palmer took over as head of the Veterans Memorial Park Committee in 2017.

After considering a couple other sites, ground was broken for the memorial on July 8, 2015, at this 24th Avenue South location.

“We had the land, but we didn’t have a plan,” said retired Air Force Col. Tom Saddler, who as vice-chairman of the VMP committee, worked closely with Palmer and other committee members: Bobby Beauchamp, treasurer; Diane Knauf, secretary; Steve Benson; Roy Fillion, James Groven; Mike Hagen, fundraiser; John Hanson, past chair; Dennis Heap; Dusty Hillebrand; Larry Holweger, Lou Lombardi; Joel Medd; Bruce Newland; Don Purpur, past vice-chair (deceased); George Schubert; Gary Shields, fundraiser; Kyle Slivnik; E. Paul Smart, past secretary (deceased); and Greg Vettel.

Hagen, one of the primary fundraisers for the park, said that the leadership of Palmer and Saddler has been the driving force that brought this park from concept to reality.

“Without their leadership, the Veterans Memorial Park would never have happened,” Hagen said.

For several years, Palmer and Saddler gave briefings to area service clubs, organizations, business leaders, and “anybody who would listen,” Palmer said. “When we knocked on doors, nobody said no.”

Those efforts have paid off.

In the past four years, “there’s been a heck of a lot that’s been accomplished out there,” Saddler said, noting the 40-foot-wide by 6-foot-high Memorial Wall; five obelisks and picnic shelters representing the military branches; 15 park benches throughout the grounds; and the Gen. Al Palmer Visitors Center, which includes restrooms, a donor wall representing gifts of $1,000 and greater, and an interactive kiosk.

A Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, in the colors of Grand Forks Air Force Base, and a General Atomics Reaper, in the colors of the North Dakota Air National Guard, will be placed at the site. Footings were poured last week. Another aircraft, a B-52 model, should be installed in the spring.

Greg Vettel played a key role in the design and execution of the Memorial Wall and the visitors center kiosk. The kiosk provides an image of the Memorial Wall and, by selecting a particular picture, the viewer will read a narrative about that person or military equipment. Among the numerous recognizable faces are Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, UND President Tom Clifford, Cliff Cushman, Dennis Elbert, Bill Haug, Judge Kirk Smith, Woody Keeble and Grand Forks native Charles Lindberg, one of the first to raise the U.S. flag in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

When the VMP committee decided to name the center for Palmer, “Al was trying to fight that tooth and nail,” but was overruled, Saddler said.

Kyle Slivnik, base community planner at Grand Forks Air Force Base, developed the design plan for the park. “Seeing it get done is one of the best things to come out of it,” said the NDSU graduate in landscape architecture.

“It’s one thing to put together a plan – it’s nice to see that plan get implemented, seeing it get to where it is now,” Slivnik said. “For the group that’s been working on it for eight to 10 years, it’s nice to see their work is paying off.”

Dale Bergum, owner of the Webster, Foster & Weston Engineers firm, was the key supervisor hired by the city to supervise the project, Saddler said. “We really didn’t have a project manager. He became like our general contractor. We couldn’t have done it without him.”

Community support

Community support has been crucial to the park’s development, Saddler said. He recalled a public event where he had set up a booth, and “a guy opened his wallet and had about $5 or $7 in it; he took it all out, and said, ‘I want to contribute.’

“People gave what they wanted to give and could give.”

No matter the amount, “all gifts are important,” Saddler said. “We probably have 190 donors who’ve given $1,000 or more.”

The VMP Committee has received about $1 million in donations, and another $1 million in in-kind donations, Saddler estimated.

He hesitates to name all the businesses, organizations and individuals who made this project a success – there are so many, he’s sure to miss some, he said. Businesses provided free or discounted contributions in materials and labor.

The VMP committee has received a half-dozen or so gifts of $100,000 or more, and another six or so of $50,000 or more, Palmer said.

The largest gift, $250,000 from the Engelstad Family Foundation, “came very quick,” Palmer recalled. “It caught us all by surprise.”

That donation cemented the project in the public consciousness and boosted fundraising, Saddler said. “It helped to establish our credibility, and people began to think this is going to happen.”

A place to reflect, remember

Those who’ve committed time and funds for the park envisioned a place for meditation, where families could spend time in the shelters and reflect on the nation’s history and the role of veterans and their loved ones in that history.

Advocates also see it as a place to educate students, so they can come to understand U.S. history and “why this country is so great,” Saddler said.

He also sees the park as a benefit to the community, he said. “I think it’s going to be a destination location. I don’t think in North Dakota – or probably some other states – there’s a park this nice.”

“This is going to be a legacy for Grand Forks,” Palmer said. “I’m really proud of the team that made this happen. It’s been fun to be part of it.”

Saddler is deeply impressed by the community’s involvement in the project, he said.

“It’s amazing to see people come together to make this happen. That’s kind of the thing that’s made it all possible – the time and money and how they feel about the military.”

If you go

Due to limited parking at the Veterans Memorial Park, guests attending the dedication ceremony are encouraged to park in the north lot of the former Sears store at Columbia Mall. Four shuttle buses will provide transportation to and from the dedication site. Seating will be limited, so guests may bring their own lawn chairs.