Pittsburg Many of the panels that make up the Vietnam Memorial at Pittsburg State University’s Veterans Memorial Amphitheater are in disrepair, the printed names of fallen U.S. soldiers faded and smeared. The state of the panels has often infuriated veterans and their families, but university officials say a long-awaited solution is nearly complete.
Vice President for University Advancement Brad Hodson, who oversees affairs involving the memorial, said private donors have ponied up $250,000 to replace the memorial’s steel panels with engraved black granite slabs. Suhor Industries in Parsons will produce the granite blocks, which Hodson said are on track to be installed in time for Memorial Day ceremonies.
“We’re not ignoring the situation or turning a blind eye,” Hodson said.
The amphitheater incorporates a unique piece memorial history. The very first display of the Vietnam Memorial wall outside of Washington, D.C., the half-scale replica wall was designed by artist John Devitt and originally was one of three such reproductions that he sent on cross-country tours, Hodson said. It was only by happenstance that the university acquired it.
Devitt was on a tour one year that took him through Girard, and he befriended several of the locals there. It was his new acquaintances who passed the word along that Pitt State planned to build a veterans’ memorial.
“He offered to retire one of his traveling walls when he heard about it,” said university spokesman Ron Womble.
The panels would ultimately influence the design and size of the 250-seat amphitheater, Hodson said.
Incorporating Devitt’s work into their design, the architects also included an entry rampart with U.S., state and university flags and the five seals of the uniformed military branches; two entry portals; an arch just behind the reflecting pool with an eternal flame; and patriotic bronze sculptures. A void in the reflecting pool represents missing soldiers.
Lining the floor of the amphitheater are more than thousands of paving stones engraved with the names of veterans.
“They sold out the day of the dedication,” Hodson said.
University crews labor to keep the amphitheater grounds in top form. But maintaining the integrity of the memorial panels is a never-ending fight.
The reason the panels are so difficult to maintain, Hodson said, is that the soldiers’ names are merely screen-printed onto the steel panels. Devitt originally had intended to display them only indoors or in shady areas not exposed to direct sunlight.
“They were never meant to be outside 24/7,” Hodson said. “The sun just eats the paint away.”
The drawbacks of the paint-on-metal design became apparent from the outset, when Rotary Club members who volunteered to clean the panels accidentally scrubbed away some of the names. Soon, paint began to disappear from all of the panels.
Out of sheer generosity, Devitt each year has donated 15 to 20 panels to replace those at the worst point of degradation. But that was cost-prohibitive for Devitt, and even the panels that weren’t replaced looked bad. Eventually Hodson and Devitt agreed that changes had to be made.
“It was a poor reflection on the men and women who served and the university,” Hodson said. “It wasn’t feasible to sustain the memorial for 50 or 100 years as we hope to. We thought, we just can’t keep doing this.”’
So Hodson and the Friends of the Memorial Advisory Board decided to try to raise enough money to build a permanent replacement for Devitt’s panels. It took only nine months for donors to give the university enough money to foot the $250,000 bill. Hodson said a “grateful” university will ship the memorial panels back to Devitt.
“Mr. Devitt helped make it the scale it has become,” he said.
On the steel panels are the names of 58,195 soldiers either killed or missing in action. But that number is inaccurate.
Each year, Hodson said, the government adds more names to the memorial in Washington. When the new granite panels are introduced this year, the most current names will be included, though Hudson said he didn’t know what the exact number would be.
As names are released, Hodson continued, the university will add those names to the appropriate place on the wall.
“We will keep it updated,” Hodson said.