Sunday Talk: Veterans Memorial Park continues to evolve

By By Bobby Dower / American Press

The Veterans Memorial Park on the banks of Lake Charles has evolved for more than 45 years.

George Heard of the Mayor’s Veterans Memorial Park Commission, James Dodd of the Mayor’s Armed Forces Commission, Scott Raymond, printing and communications manager for the City of Lake Charles and Joe Toups and Jennifer Graham with the Lake Charles Civic Center talked with the American Press about the park’s development.

What was the origin of the park?

Scott Raymond: The State of Louisiana granted a permit to the City for Phase One of the park on March 11, 1968. Phase One was to erect the

steel tower with the purple martin birdhouses. It was known as the Vietnam Memorial and that was completed in 1968.

There’s been an evolution of things that has gone on since 1968.

The state turned the property over to

the City of Lake Charles in 1984. In 1988, an ordinance was introduced

to the City Council

authorizing the mayor to enter into an agreement for construction

of a Veterans Memorial Park near the shoreline of Lake Charles

at Lawrence Street and Highway 90 at no cost to the City. This was

to be Phase Two and Three of the original project, but

lack of funds kept the project from fruition at that time.

Then you get into a major event which

is a real turning point event for the park and that’s Desert Shield and

Desert Storm

in 1990-1991. There was outpouring for support for Desert Storm

troops and a surge of patriotism generated by the victory

helped form an exploratory committee. And from those meetings it

was decided to sell bricks engraved with the names of veterans

as a means of raising funds for the project.

The City Council approved the concept and on May 18, 1991, which was Armed Forces Day, ground breaking ceremonies were held

and a site blessing was held on July 4.

The next year, the City and the

Veterans Memorial Park Commission, a non-profit corporation, entered

into a cooperative agreement

which called for the Commission to construct a park to honor U.S.

veterans adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at no

cost to the City on a site approved by the City. The Park was

dedicated and named Veterans Memorial Park to honor all U.S.

veterans. The Commission agreed to donate the park to the City

upon completion of construction.

The original Veterans Memorial Park

Commission did great work and moved the project forward. At some point,

though, I believe

it became inactive. So we get to 2009 and the City Council adopted

a resolution formally acknowledging the City’s accepting

ownership of the park. So that was a first step in the City doing

something else, and since there was not a formal active

commission that year, the Mayor signed an executive order creating

a City of Lake Charles Veterans Memorial Park Commission

and we have that to this day.

The Commission has done a lot of good things. You can see some of the good things that they’ve done. They obtained a Vietnam-era

Huey helicopter.

George Heard: I wish I could remember all five of the people. What happened in the early ’90s, Al Harris and Loyd Rion and one other person

who I can’t remember his name, there was about five of us, and they went on a trip somewhere and they saw a memorial that

was funded by the sale of bricks.

James Dodd: Was it in New Orleans at the Aquarium?

Heard:

It was either in New Orleans or in San Antonio. ... We had this concept

and it kind of grew from that. Wes Crain, who at

that time was working for the City, because he was a landscape

architect said, ‘‘OK, we got the bird tower. We’ve got this

much property. Let’s brainstorm what this would look like.’’ And

the guy who came up with that and he and Wes worked together

... kind of had the concept for the star, the flag, the five

service flags and a World War II Memorial and a Vietnam Memorial.

It evolved over time.

That’s how it got started. It was sold with the concept we will sell these bricks, get money and build the park. Small in-kind

work from the City could be done, but in terms of any money at that point in time was not contemplated.

And so we raised some money and had it

built in the configuration it is today. Things kind of slowed down for a

while. The

brick sales went very well. There are bricks in there for people

who served in the American Revolution, the Civil War, the

Spanish American — you name it, if they served as a veteran, you

can put a brick in there. And people who support veterans.

It has not been very restrictive.

That’s how that got started and that how it came to this day.

The Mayor had the idea of putting a statue. And Jim Jackson who was chairman of the Commission was very instrumental in working

with the Mayor and with (Calcasieu Parish District Attorney) John DeRosier, who became interested in this. We raised some

money and we were able to purchase the statue and modify the park to accept it.

What I think is really good and what we

struggled with from day one, is how to tie this in with the City and

once the City

started their project of what they’ve done around the Civic

Center, they’ve go the motif to make it consistent and that was

carried over with the architect that was hired into the present

day statue modifications to accept the statue which I think

is a wonderful thing.

Once we get the Hurricane Museum in and

get it really tied in and if they finally get around to doing anything

on the north

shore — we had that vision way back then to kind of tie it all in,

but it was really nothing more than a figment of our imagination.

But 30 years later, it’s happening, slowly but surely.

The good thing is you’ve got something

to tie into to make it look like it was planned. I think it’s wonderful

that that has

happened. I’ve go out there not an awful lot, but every time I’m

out there, there is somebody that is there looking at the

park. Most of them are looking for a brick for someone that is in

their family or that they know. And it’s a beautiful location.

It’s kind of serene most of the time.

That flag pole was a big deal. I don’t

think it’s ever been acknowledged, but about two weeks before the park

was going to

be opened, I was one of the little guys that was in charge of

trying to get a flag pole. And through a number of things that

occurred, it wasn’t happening. And I went up to Al’s office and

said, ‘‘Al, it’s not happening, I can’t get it to work. I’ve

got this and that, but it’s not going to be ready for the grand

opening.’’ And Al picked up the phone and he called (Westlake

Mayor) Dudley Dixon and within 15 minutes he called back and said

Conoco said they would do it. And they did it. And they

spent big money on it.

I had procured a flag pole that was 100

feet high and they got in and they inspected it and they said, ‘‘This

thing has been

up and it’s deteriorated. If Conoco is going to put this thing in

the ground, it’s going to have to withstand a hurricane.’’

So they got their engineering

department in Ponca City, (Okla.) cranking on it and you end with a

131-and-a-half-foot-tall

flag pole that has withstood two hurricanes. They designed the

base that went in the ground which is 10 tons of concrete and

all the steel. It’s not going anywhere.

American Press: Going back to 1968, it could date back to Mayor Alfred Roberts. That means the park has progressed through

seven mayors. No one is going to be against it because politically it’s not very astute, but at the same time you had the

support of different administrations and different councils along the way.

Heard: Absolutely.

They have been. It helps that the Civic Center was here and the Civic

Center staff over time has always been involved

with the sale of the bricks and kind of watching out over the

project.

I think the park has worked out as well

as it could considering how it got started and it stopped and started a

few times.

Basically, the interest in veterans and recognizing veterans is

always an undercurrent in this area. There’s always been a

lot of support and all someone really has to do is to come up with

a project or an idea. That’s just my observation. And people

will get behind it. We raised what, 170, 180,000 dollars.

Raymond: ... We raised a total of donations was over 163,000 dollars.

But it was the brick sale concept and the sales of the bricks themselves that basically took it to another level?

Heard:

Yes. It got us to the point where we could have a special project to

raise money for a statue to honor Doug Fournet, who

is as far as we know the only Medal of Honor winner from Southwest

Louisiana. This is just not a Lake Charles thing. The people

that have donated have been from all over the country.

Raymond: I want to make sure to keep this in perspective with the statue project. The bricks have been something that were and continue

to be available and offered up to the public for the park.

The statue project itself I think it’s

important to note because Mayor (Randy) Roach has been very supportive

of veterans

and veterans projects. The idea of the Fournet Memorial goes back

2009. About the end of that year, the mayor originally presented

this idea to the Veterans Park Commission to erect the statue of

First Lt. Douglas B. Fournet. He was a native of Lake Charles

and he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1970 for his

selfless act of sacrifice on May of 1968 during the Vietnam

War.

This was actually going to be worked on

a little earlier than it ended up being worked on. Several things

happened. We were

going to work on this a little bit earlier but we went through the

great recession issue several years back and then we had

the fire at Millennium Park and the rebuild of the Millennium Park

Committee was very involved with the community in raising

funds in 2011.

But in any event, this project, we had

it endorsed by the Veterans Park Commission and the Mayors Armed Forces

Commission.

The City Council passed an ordinance in February 2010 in

supporting this and then the project took hold around August of 2011.

We delayed this project and then the Mayor invited several members

of the Veterans Park Commission and the Mayors Armed Forces

Commission to talk about reactivating this as a community project.

He formed this committee — the Mayor’s Committee for the

First Lt. Douglas B. Fournet Memorial in late 2011. It held its

first meeting in January, then they launched the big press

conference at (American Legion) Post 1.

Heard: I think it’s safe to say that Jim Jackson, and in most projects of this nature, it’s been my observation, you’re going to

have one or two or three people that really become the driving force behind it. And when the Mayor formed this commission

and Jim Jackson accepted the chairmanship, he was very active in Post 1 and he has since become the state commander of the

American Legion.

Raymond: I want to just clarify one thing — the co-chairs were the Mayor and John DeRosier, but Jim Jackson got very involved and

was very supportive and he was the commander of the post in March 2012 when we had the press conference, facilitating that

press conference and Jim was very, very active.

Heard: Of course, you’re not going to get this type of support unless people like the Mayor and D.A. are fully behind it.

Raymond: The entire commission has been very active on that project.

Dodd:

Well, the Mayor, before the statue started coming to fruition, the

Mayor we had a committee that tried to change the signs

on the interstate system as well. We went to the DOTD and tried to

get them to help us with it. Their restrictions were limited,

not allowing us to do what we wanted to do. That’s when we turned

more focus to the statue.

Heard: There’s a thread that runs through it. It takes a lot of time and effort and a number of different people to make something

like this happen and become a reality.

The memorial to Doug Fournet consists of what?

Heard: A statue.

Raymond:

The centerpiece is a statue of Doug Fournet. There are new pavers to

the entrance of the octagon area that surrounds the

statue (and) two arbors, one on each side of the statue. The

Veterans Memorial gateway entrance and then there’s the four-sided

granite base for the statue. Those are the elements. There’s the

Fournet statue and these other amenities is part of this

Phase One redesign of Veterans Park. Down the road, we’re looking

at new things.

How tall is the statue? Is it just a bust? Or is it life size?

Raymond: It’s a little bigger than full life. Janie Stine LaCroix is the sculptor. She did the (Doctor Michael) DeBakey statue. The

architect on the project is Jeff Kudla, the contractor is Keiland Construction. The work began in June out there. ...

The community has been very supportive

with numerous donors and they are listed on the base (of the statue).

And government

entities have stepped up to offer funding support, so it has just

been a very successful project. The Community Foundation

of Southwest Louisiana worked with the City to be the location for

the donations to be received and we worked very closely

with them. Of course our Veterans Memorial Park Commission and

James Dodd with the Mayors Armed Forces Commission — you’ve

just seen support through Mayor Roach’s commissions and helping

any way that they can. It’s hard to mention everyone by name

because they’ve all been so supportive.

How were the tank and the Huey helicopter acquired?

Raymond: I don’t know the origins of the tank. I think the tank was acquired in the early ’90s.

Heard: Now the helicopter actually served with the 1st Cav (Cavalry) in Vietnam. It actually flew.

Dodd: In the movie, ‘‘We Were Soldiers’’, that helicopter came through that battle.

Heard: That was the first big fight that any unit from in the Army got involved in in November of 1966.

James Stewart had it painted. I know that Jim Jackson was involved in that to through the American Legion. I could be wrong

because I wasn’t active when that was actually procured.

Raymond: The helicopter is on loan VVA (Vietnam Veterans Association Chapter) 215. They manage the helicopter. It is the agreement

with the Army and there is a name for this group in the Army for archival type military hardware in acquiring it and it’s

on loan.

Heard:

The tank is like that, too. Every piece of military equipment that goes

out, somebody accepts the responsibility for maintaining

it.

Raymond: Yes, and it must be maintained.

Dodd: In March of 2008 we signed the request from Army TACOM to receive the helicopter through VVA 215.

Raymond: The City has a cooperative endeavor agreement with VVA 215.

Dodd:

It came out of Slaughter, Texas, out of the Texas Air Museum. They were

getting rid of the museum and we were able to get

the National Guard to go pick it up. Major (Jody) Guidry secured a

vehicle and a trailer and two guys and they took off one

weekend and went out and got it and they secured it for us for a

couple of weeks and cleaned it up. Then

the Marine Corps League here did some work on it and they got

everything secured so we could put it up. Someone with a crane

company came out and put it up for us. They did all the work on

the pedestal there and we dedicated it on the Fourth of July

2010.

The National Guard played a big part in helping us get it here.

Are the bricks still for sale? How do people purchase bricks?

Jennifer Graham:

They call me (491-1256), (and) fill out an application that I can email

to them or they can get online (www.cityoflakecharles.com).

And what is the cost?

Graham: Fifty dollars.

Joe Toups: And when they are ordered and they arrive, you are going to get a certificate that they’ve been placed already.

How can people go about finding their loved one’s brick?

Graham: I have a book that’s got all the bricks that are out there. We went out there and wrote down the location of each brick that’s

in the park. All they have to do is tell me their name and I can look it up, what section and what row that it’s on.

Raymond: And that leads us to the next way to find bricks.

Heard: Being able to find a brick was thought about when we first started this. And this was the procedure that was developed and

it’s now every antiquated, the same way that you would do it in 1914.

I think we’ve progressed to the point

that what we would like to have is something, a kiosk there at the park

at the entrance

when you would come in, probably close to where the statue is,

which would have a touch screen. If they can do it to get money

out of the darn things that are exposed to the elements, I think

if we get in touch with the right people, that we will be

able to do that.

It’s important and it’s something that

we wanted to do for a long, long time. There were other things that we

needed to do

to the park. It’s one of those — kind of like your bucket list.

It’s about time. It’s floated to the top now that we have

the statue done. We think the statue will have more interest and

we want to have along with this kiosk, not only to be able

to find the bricks that are already there, but how to apply for a

brick and where to go if you have any questions and that

sort of thing.

We haven’t formally started that but we’ve had discussions on it for 20 or 30 years that I’ve been involved with them. I think

that’s the next thing (for the park).

It was envisioned when we started this

that the park is going to grow — things that will happen that we don’t

even have a

vision or a sense of it at this point. The statue is a good

example. People come forward with good ideas, they are discussed

and vetted and then you move forward with them.

And this is not the end. This is just the beginning.

The kiosk will add a great amenity to the park. Is there anything else on the horizon that you would like to do?

Heard: One

of the things that we’ve talked about and this is very informal

discussions, but I think the Hurricane Museum will happen

eventually. I believe that. It’s far enough along and they have

some good people behind it. I think it would be a great addition

to Southwest Louisiana. And we’ve got a place where people can

easily get to it, coming down the interstate. And then you’ve

got whatever is going to happen on the north shore and I don’t

have any concept of how or when, but something will happen

there.

So, as we go through it, we will want

to try to improve the park certainly with landscaping as time goes on,

bigger and better

landscaping. A lot of that has been done. The City has been very

good about maintaining the grounds so to speak, but not any

other than to make sure that we are compatible with the other

things that occur there and the other things that occur there

take us into consideration also.

We’ve always talked about somehow improving parking for the park and for the whole lakefront. That’s beyond our scope, but

that’s something that we’re always interested in, particularly up to the north of us.

We’re optimistic that it will continue

to improve and that the additions to the park that haven’t even been

conceived at this

point, but we have the mechanism to do it, just like the mechanism

to do the statue was put in place. That’s how things happen.

The Hurricane Museum, people got interested, they formed an

organization and they’re moving forward to it.

Raymond:

The one thing that is important about the park so that we’re

comprehensive about it is that both of these commissions, the

Mayor’s Armed Forces Commission which James Dodd is the president

of and George Heard is the chairperson of the Veterans Memorial

Park Commission, each year there are activities which take place

out at the park or nearby at the Civic Center. The Mayor’s

Armed Forces Commission is involved in every Veterans Day

recognition and the big ceremony.

Dodd: That’s where we hold all the ceremonies for veterans projects that we do. ...

People who come through Lake Charles and have seen the park realize that it is one of the better veteran parks that they’ve

seen.