By Danielle Piekarski
“Some people live for an entire lifetime and wonder if they had ever made a difference in the world. A veteran does not have that problem,” reads the gleaming granite sign positioned at the entrance of the Grand Forks Veterans Memorial Park. This Ronald Reagan quote takes on an even greater meaning when considering the group of veterans who spent years continuing to make a difference in their community through their work on creating the park.
Nearly ten years of work has paid off, as the park celebrated its one-year anniversary on September 11, 2022. While the project was a massive collaborative effort of veterans, city officials, park district employees, and community members, the idea for the park started with one man named Roger Westerso. Westerso was a U.S. Army Veteran who served with the 3rd Infantry Division, “Rock of the Marne,” through the 1970s. He was also a talented artist who created the first design of the park. His vision included a large wall accompanied by five pillars to represent five branches of the military: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. This piece of art was even added to a Harley Davidson motorcycle and titled “Veterans Memorial Bike.”
In 2011, this bike was displayed at the Red River Valley Motorcyclists Show, where it caught the attention of Don Purpur and John Hanson. The two began discussing what a park dedicated to veterans could mean for the community. Despite Grand Forks’ extensive military history, there were only a few small military tributes throughout the city. They realized that what was needed was a formal space where veterans, military members, family, and friends could gather to celebrate and honor those who have served.
A committee was formed to further develop this idea. This vision quickly became a mission for the committee members who would spend the next few years holding regular meetings and local briefings on the park. In 2015, the committee’s hard work paid off and they were able to secure land for the park. With the help of the Grand Forks Park District, the Red River Valley Motorcyclists, the City of Grand Forks, and local veteran organizations, the park would now officially sit on a six-acre site adjacent to the roundabout at 24th Avenue South and South 34th Street. A groundbreaking was held on July 8th, 2015.
Now that the park had an official location, committee members wasted no time building the park they envisioned. The original plan featured a memorial wall, five pillars representing the five military services, and various sculptures. Park development started with the construction of the parking lot in 2016. The park received its first attraction this year as well, with the addition of the anchor from the U.S.S. Kiska. The anchor was once part of a Navy ship that began service during the Vietnam War.
The Memorial Stone Program was launched as a fundraiser that would provide individuals the opportunity to dedicate a block along the sidewalk to their loved ones who served. Many citizens took advantage of this program, which helped jumpstart funding. In 2017, Retired Air Force General Al Palmer joined the Veterans Memorial Park committee and was elected as Chair. Gary Shields and Mike Hagen became board members and major fundraisers. By the end of the year, more than $200,000 was raised between the efforts of Hagen, Shields, and the Memorial Stone Program.
As the park entered another year of development, 2018 would prove to be the most productive period yet. “It just took off,” said Tom Saddler, Air Force Veteran and Vice-Chair of the Veterans Memorial Park Board. “As more donations came in, we started receiving more donations and support.” EAPC Architects Engineers finished the design of the park, based on a sketch by Kyle Slivnik, which would now have five shelters and five service benches to represent the five military branches, 17 honor benches, and a number of other attractions throughout.
A sidewalk was laid from the parking lot, around the U.S.S. Kiska anchor, and down 24th Avenue. Parts of 24th Avenue South and South 34th Street were named “Veterans Memorial Parkway” by the City Council. Footings and foundations for the memorial wall and five obelisks were completed by Opp Construction. A visitor center and donor recognition wall, designed by JLG Architects, was also added to the plan. On top of all the physical advancements, fundraising was also thriving. Approximately $500,000 was raised in 2018, with $250,000 donated from the Englestad Family Foundation.
In 2019, final designs for the visitor’s center were approved, and it was decided that the facility would be named after Al Palmer, the Park Board Chair, who played a considerable role in the park’s creation. The five park shelters were erected and included picnic tables, grills, service logos, and lighting. Lastly, Greg Vettel’s design was approved for the 40-foot-long granite memorial wall. The park committee gratefully accepted another $425,000 in donations in 2019. With a total of over $1.5 million fundraised and contracting completed, it was time to construct the largest park features yet.
In 2020, the Memorial Wall and Military Obelisks were placed. An irrigation system was installed to help the landscaping flourish. Sidewalks running through, and around the park, were completed and 612 memorial stones were placed along the way. This path is now called “The Walk of Honor.” Another $665,700 was raised for the park this year, putting the total funds collected over $2 million.
As a final touch, a granite slab was placed outside the visitor’s center with etchings that dedicate the park to those who served and thank the community that made it possible. “The community’s generosity has been amazing during the park’s development. It isn’t just the 200+ names on the donor recognition wall who have contributed $1,000 or more. It includes those who have purchased memorial stones to honor their veteran, those who sent in a contribution to show their support or donated their valuable time during the park’s development,” said Tom Saddler. “As appropriately indicated on the entry sign to the park, it has been ‘made possible through the efforts of local residents, families, businesses and organizations.’ This park serves as a testimony of what can be accomplished when a community comes together,” he added.
On September 11th, 2021, the Dedication of the Grand Forks Veterans Memorial Park was held. More than one thousand people gathered at the park for the ceremony, which was emceed by Al Palmer. After a benediction from Monsignor Brian Donahue, speeches were given by UND President Andrew Armacost, 319th Wing Commander Colonel Timothy Curry, ND TAG Major General Alan Dohrmann, and Mayor Brandon Bochenski. At the honorary ribbon cutting, veterans representing each military branch were present. The Red River Valley Motorcyclists and North Dakota Patriot Guard honored those who lost their lives in the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan by positioning 13 motorcycles and conducting a flag ceremony. The Dedication Ceremony concluded with a 21-gun salute, the playing of Taps, and the launching of streamers from behind the Memorial Wall.
Over a year later, the park remains one of the proudest places in Grand Forks. More than 1,400 memorial stones have been purchased to date, and it is common to see people paying respect to their loved ones at the park. Thanks to a dedicated development team and a generous community, veterans in the area now have the place that they have dreamed of for nearly a decade. “The Veterans Memorial Park clearly demonstrates the community cares, honors, and respects the sacrifices the veterans and their families have made in order to ensure the freedoms we have in this great country,” said Tom Saddler. “It is a wonderful place to meditate and reflect, instill patriotism in our youth, and is a great educational tool with the kiosk which can be accessed on the internet at home or in school.” G
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PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY Tweten Photography & Grand Forks Parks District
From Issue 3, 2022