(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, November 09, 2013 6:42 PM
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.