What started as a conversation between two teachers is now a landmark honoring the man whose boat design helped win World War II - and a tribute to the spirit of all Americans
One afternoon, after reading an article in the local newspaper, Jerry Meyer walked down the hall at Columbus (Neb.) High School and asked fellow teacher Tracy Dodson a simple question: Did he know Andrew Jackson Higgins was born in their city?
Unless you're a history teacher like Meyer, you may not be aware that Higgins designed the boats for the D-Day landings that changed the course of World War II. But what neither Meyer nor Dodson, a SkillsUSA advisor, could understand was, why hadn't Columbus honored this native son? They decided to do something.
Today, their Higgins Memorial stands in the city's Pawnee Park. The centerpiece, a full-size steel replica of a Higgins boat, has the ramp down to allow visitors to walk inside and experience what it felt like for the Allied troops during the invasion. Even the sand mixed from numerous D-Day beaches surrounds the boat.
Students wrote letters and sent them worldwide to collect the sand, which is also housed in stainless steel vaults covered by 57 brass stars. The stars and vaults were designed and machined by SkillsUSA members. Flags fly over a curved stone wall, with individual bricks bought by residents to remember local veterans. And that's only the first phase of the memorial project.
Today, the memorial spans generations, from the defining moments of D-Day in 1944 to the terrorist attacks of 2001. During its second phase, bronze figures of World War II, Korea and Vietnam soldiers were added, cast by local artist Fred Hoppe. A third section displays material from the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York.
"His [Higgins' ] hometown had nothing to remind future generations of his greatness," says Meyer, the project chair. "The memorial also honors all those veterans who returned and were never recognized for their contributions. The addition of the Freedom Memorial with steel from the World Trade Center is a tribute to all Americans who have come together after 9/11."
Dodson, a precision machining instructor, and his class worked alongside Meyer's history students. The local American Legion post, as well as numerous local businesses, made both man-power and financial contributions.
"This memorial shows the power of SkillsUSA in action," Dodson says. "Everybody started getting the fever for the thing. We'd hear, 'Hey, this is a couple of teachers, but look what they're doing!' People just started jumping on the bandwagon." Construction on the Higgins Memorial began in 2000, followed by the Veterans Memorial in 2001 and finally the Freedom Memorial in 2002. "The students took complete ownership of the projects," Meyer points out. "We started out to honor Mr. Higgins. It has grown into honoring veterans and all Americans."
Bethany Konsel, SkillsUSA chapter president, remembers working on the project when she was in the seventh grade. Her brother was a SkillsUSA member, and she often helped with community service projects. She helped paint, lay brick and haul sand. ?It was really awesome to see so many different sections completed by so many. While we were working on it, people would come up and ask questions, especially a lot of the older people who remember World War II and the actual Higgins boats," she says. "They were really interested, and they really enjoyed seeing a group of young people work on it. Before the project, I had heard very little about the Higgins boats, and I did not really comprehend what it all meant."
Now she'll never forget.
(Click on images for larger versions)
SkillsUSA Champions | Spring 2005 | Volume 39, No. 3