The Great Falls Freedom Memorial is set to break ground next month, now that all of the funds have been raised for the park-like monument. Pete Hilgartner, who originally conceived the idea for the memorial and is a member of the board that raised construction funds, says that the concept and complexity of the memorial have evolved over the last year but community support has remained high for the project.
The Great Falls Freedom Memorial is dedicated to all those who have given their lives in the defense of freedom. The committee working on the memorial purposefully included a broad spectrum of honorees that includes men and women in the armed services, firefighters, police and citizens such as the victims of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
The Freedom Memorial is now in Phase II, which will be handled almost exclusively by the county. Construction is expected to begin in mid-August, and there is a tentative dedication date of Oct. 11, Columbus Day.
“When we started it, it was a very simple deal. It wasn’t a straight line from A to B. We zigged and zagged along, but now we’re going to have a beautiful little park,” said Pete Hilgartner.
Sara Hilgartner, also on the board, said, “This entire landscaped plaza has come out of the county [involvement] and the community.”
The initial design for the Freedom Memorial, which will be located next to the library on Georgetown Pike, was not as elaborate in scale and did not have the magnitude of landscaping the present design does. Initially, members of the community who wanted the memorial sought to raise about $30,000 for the project. As input from Great Falls residents and county officials began to stream in, the design and scope of the project changed.
“IT WILL BE MORE OF A PARK NOW. When people see it, they will be very pleased. Great Falls will have a beautiful green spot in that space,” said Sara Hilgartner. The memorial will be built in such a way that if the library needs to be expanded in the future, it can do so with fluidity.
In order to begin work on the memorial, the community had to raise $80,000 on its own. Now that those funds have been collected, Fairfax County takes over the project to oversee construction. It’s necessary for the county to be involved because the memorial is being built on county-owned land.
Brogue Charities, helmed by Micheal Kearney, has pledged to maintain the memorial. This includes the lightscapes, landscaping and maintenance. Kearney had a lead role in the memorial and presented the evolving and final design plans to county officials and the community through the Great Falls Citizens Association meetings.
“I’m more proud of the memorial now than I was at it’s inception. It wasn’t built from a vision of a few. It was built from the input from the community. It’s been a tenfold change in design,” said Kearney.
Changing the design was necessary when controversy erupted about whom the memorial was honoring. Pete Hilgartner got the idea for the memorial at a candlelight vigil held on the Great Falls Village Center green for the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Six Great Falls residents lost their lives on 9/11.
“To me, that didn’t seem enough. A gazebo with a flag at an angle over it wasn’t enough,” said Pete Hilgartner. He and his wife immediately turned to Kearney and Brogue Charities to see what could be done. The idea of a memorial quickly took hold.
“This has exceeded our expectations,” said Kearney of the speed in which the $80,000 has been raised. Some 420 “sizable” donations have been made to the project by residents and businesses since Dec. 18, 2003. What Kearney and Hilgartner say they are most buoyed by, however, are the small donations. “The majority of the donations were in the $50 to $100 range. Some of the donations were $25, and I know that $25 meant a lot to them. To me that’s a sizable donation. One lady sent $25 and a letter saying she was sorry she couldn’t afford to send more right now but would send another $25 later. And she did. That’s saying something about how people feel about this,” Kearney said.
“Funds are still dribbling in. Over 300 families have contributed to this so far,” said Pete Hilgartner.
THE ORIGINAL COMPLAINTS about the memorial’s design and about whom the structure would be honoring have all but gone. The number “six” is a recurring theme in the landscaping, from the trees to the benches, that will pay silent homage to the 9/11 victims. According to Kearney, he has spoken directly with the family members of those victims, and they are all in support of the Freedom Memorial.
John Leary is against the memorial and has written several letters to organizers and newspapers expressing his views. “My position is that the memorial, if there is be one, should only and exclusively be for the six Great Falls victims,” said Leary. He said he will continue to argue against the Freedom Memorial.
After changing central design elements, such as substituting a massive indigenous rock for the black etched granite that was initially suggested, community members have expressed support for the project.
Some dissent still exists but is mainly centered around the financial aspects of the memorial. Kearney received a letter from one resident suggesting that $80,000 could be spent on other things in the community and that a fitting memorial could be developed for less money.
Pete Hilgartner said that throughout this process he has received only three letters not supporting the memorial. Dranesville District supervisor Joan DuBois, who is actively monitoring the progress of the memorial, said that she has only received one letter against the project.
“There’s been a lot of support, but even things like the World War II memorial downtown, there’s going to be resistance to any project,” said Kearney.
“When the county got involved, that’s when the cost went up,” said Sara Hilgartner. Pete Hilgartner said the county involvement raised costs through such things as architectural planning.
There are now 17 people on the Freedom Memorial Committee, including a Boy Scout who, along with his troop, will actively participate in the development of the memorial over the next few months. The committee members will concentrate their efforts on finer details, such as expanding the book of names that will serve as a resource at the memorial.
“Not only is this a memorial to remember those who have given of themselves, it’s going to be of historical value to Great Falls. We have a heritage here. There’s an educational benefit here that’s equally if not more important,” said Pete Hilgartner. “This will bring focus to our heritage.”
Kearney said he envisions the students at Great Falls Elementary School walking the trail that connects the school to the library as a field trip to learn about their community. “I’d like to see them take as a project the 32 inspirational words [inscribed on bricks along the memorial] and try to see what they really mean,” said Kearney.
Sara Hilgartner said, “It’s important for the town of Great Falls to have the educational possibilities along with the opportunity to remember these people.” She is still looking for the names of servicemen and women, police and fire personnel and others who have “given their life in defense of freedom.” She does not expect the book to ever be complete. New names will be added as they are known.
IN ADDITION TO POSING REFLECTIVE and educational opportunities for the community, Freedom Memorial supporters say having a plaza like this in town will offer the community a ceremonial place to gather. “You go to other small towns, and they have a place. We don’t have anything here,” said Kearney.
Veterans Day and Memorial Day celebrations will likely be held at Freedom Memorial in the future. It’s the daily reminder of the meaning of freedom that the memorial’s supporters hope seeps into the community’s subconscious. Residents are likely to drive by the memorial several times a day, and it will be clearly visible from the road, even at night, when there is subtle uplighting at the space to prevent vandalism.
“After the memorial has been dedicated, I think the community as a whole will embrace it as a part of Great Falls,” said Kearney. The full vision of the Freedom Memorial will take a little time. Pete Hilgartner said, “It’ll be a year before the trees grow and the flowers bloom, till it matures into the [image we have].”