The Process in Pictures and Words
The newest tributes on The Highground are to individuals. They are most appropriately called ‘Legacy Stones’. While The Highground magazine has featured a variety of stories about those whom the Legacy Stones have honored, this issue features the process – start to finish.
It is accurate to say that Legacy Stones are 12” x 12” pieces of granite inscribed with up to three lines of lettering, which can include: names, dates, places, and sentiments. They are so much more than that, however. They are frequently the vehicle for opening the hearts of an individual, carrying a message of love, respect, or joy, bringing together families and friends, extending our sense of community, and expanding the boundaries of who we are to be more than we were before.
Each Legacy Stone begins with an idea, which often accompanies a request for more information. The following is an example of one such letter recently received at The Highground:
- I recently visited The Highground and obtained information about the Legacy Stone program. I spoke of this to a friend, whose son was killed in Vietnam and she is interested in placing a stone for him. Could you please send her the necessary information about this program?
- My husband and I are also interested in this program and will make a decision next spring, about purchasing a stone to commemorate his service, during World War II. The Highground is a very special place and we wish you success in continuing the development.
Lorraine Imhoff of Wausau, WI and her Vietnam veteran husband Donald visited The Highground for the first time several years ago. “When I saw how much the memorial [Vietnam Veterans Tribute] meant to him,” Lorraine told us in a phone conversation, “I decided I was going to start saving my tips to get him a Legacy Stone. I’m just so glad you have that,” she added, “People don’t have to be killed to have their name on something.”
Once the decision is made to purchase a Legacy Stone, an application is mailed, or hand carried to The Highground. Occasionally the original wording requested needs to be changed. It is the policy of The Highground that the Legacy Stones not resemble tombstones. While, birth and death dates are entirely appropriate for The Registry because they are frequently associated with tombstones, their use is discouraged on the Legacy Stones themselves. Replacements are sought for such words as “beloved” and “in memory of” as well.
Many interesting alternatives have risen as a result of these guidelines. Wording chosen in lieu of “Beloved” and “In Memory Of,” have included “Our Loved Son,” “Lovingly Remembering,” “Honoring Our Members,” “Faith love Courage/ Her Gift To Us All,” “His Love Was a Gift,” “Always In The Heart/ Of His Family”.
The Highground has also abided by the engraver’s recommendation that no punctuation or symbols be used. Thus dashes between service dates, periods normally found after, abbreviations, etc. must be removed. The result has been diverse and unique wording with a uniform presentation.
- Thank you for the letter of confirmation about the stones and how they will read. Everyone’s help and guidance in this matter was very much appreciated. We look forward to placing the stones and meeting the wonderful people, who coordinate all of this.
Included with the purchase of a Legacy Stone is the option of having a personalized certificate to be used as a gift. Lorraine Imhoff’s gift certificate for her husband read:
As a tribute to you and my love for you, for
Christmas, a Legacy Stone at The Highground
has been gifted to you by your wife.
“He was very surprised,” said Lorraine describing her husband’s reaction to having received the certificate. “It brought tears to his eyes. We were opening other presents too and he picked it up a couple of times and just looked at it. He’s just very proud. He said it would be something our kids would always have – a lasting remembrance.”
The next decision to be made is the actual date that the stone will be placed. Purchasers are sent the placement schedule for the upcoming months. If those dates are not convenient, the placement is postponed, until a later time. For many the occasion of a Legacy Stone placement becomes an ideal opportunity for a family reunion. Having a number of dates to choose from facilities the planning process.
The placement of one stone can draw together as many as thirty or more people. Thus, it is preferable not to have too many stones placed at one time. The optimal number has yet to be determined, however. Those Legacy Stones, which bring together many friends and family members are somewhat balanced by those who for one reason or another can’t or choose not to be present to place their stone. When requested, The Highground finds someone to place their stone.
Two such stones were placed in October. One was for WWII veteran, Clem Poehnelt, Sr. of Eden, NY and his Vietnam veteran son, Clem Poehnelt, Jr. There was no shortage of volunteers for this coveted task. When we asked for a WWII and Vietnam veteran volunteer, Bud Joswiak and Mike Huebsch stepped forward. Both were on The Highground to place a stone for Edgar VFW Post 10187. “It was an honor for us to do it,” said Bud afterward.
Bill and Shirley Brown of St. Augustine, FL purchased a Legacy Stone for their Vietnam veteran son, James B. Miller, who had recently died of complications related to Agent Orange. When illness in the family foiled their intentions of placing the stone themselves, they asked that James’ stone be placed in their absence. Phillip Stratton was on The Highground to pay tribute via a Legacy Stone to his WWI veteran grandfather, Philenus Westby, and his WWII uncle, Philenus Westby Jr. When The Highground staff asked for a Vietnam Marine Veteran, Phillip felt privileged to step forward and place the stone of his ‘brother’ he never met.
Sometime, before the placement date Hillcrest Monument of Eau Claire engraves and deliver the stones. Volunteers help move them to a secure place on The Highground, dividing stones according to placement dates to avoid multiple handling.
On placement day, the staff arrives early. The Legacy Stones are set out on a table covered with a royal blue felt cloth. If it is raining or the weather is threatening, a tarp is erected over an aluminum frame, which straddles the area where the stones will be placed, and the Legacy Stones are placed under the shelter of the Timber Frame deck. Otherwise, the Legacy Stones are placed on a picnic table on the northern walkway.
Neillsville’s Bob Marty, of Bob’s Masonry, is the next person to arrive. Symbolizing the highest spirit of The Highground volunteers, Bob has donated his time and expertise to place every Legacy Stone on The Highground to date. He has provided, at his own expense, all of the materials as well. Using a wrecking bar, the existing stones are removed from the walkway. A bed for the new tributes is then prepared, leveled, and covered with chicken wire. Using his stone cutter he trims a number of old stones, which will be used to fill any gaps left between the new and old stones.
In the meantime, people begin to gather on The Highground. Those already present can feel the difference. CNN cameraman, Stu Clark, in filming a Legacy Stone dedication in April of 1997 described it most succinctly: “The statues didn’t come to life until the people got here.”
One of the unique features of these personal tributes is that they are placed in the mortar by the person(s) designated by the purchaser. To be able to place the stone oneself has great meaning for most people.
For some, placing a Legacy Stone is a time of sadness and sorrow. Del Stahoski and her family had purchased a stone for her husband, Wayne when he was in the hospital. “As early as May, Wayne and his brother, Walter, really wanted to get this going,” Del shared with us afterward. “He had just become ill, but we thought he had four or five more years,” she continued, “and we had every hope that he would be able to be present for the placement of his stone.” Wayne passed on a week, before the placement date, however, and the family gathered together without his physical presence.
“We were all so impressed with the Legacy Stone placement and dedication,” Del told us recently, “even though it was hard for us, because we were still in the early stages of grieving. It made that easier, because it’s such a wonderful place. It gave us a lot of peace to know that we had done this for Wayne. It meant so much to us that he knew it was going to be done. I had told the girls that I feel his spirit is there at The Highground more than it is at the cemetery.”
For some it is a time of mixed emotions. At the age of 19, Robert Kirchoff was accidentally washed overboard, when a huge wave hit his ship. His body was never recovered. Thirty-eight-years later, his family gathered together to place a Legacy Stone for him. “It was a terrible thing we had to go through,” said Darlene Kirchoff speaking about the incident. “At the time of his death, UPS dropped off a stone as well as a flag in the mail. All mother had left was the flag. She couldn’t stand to look at it. She always felt that since there was no body to be buried, he was forgotten. Nothing was ever finalized. For a whole year, the site of a car driving into the driveway – especially a taxicab – made us think immediately, ‘Bobby’s coming home!’ It just took us so long.”
“It seems now that he has a place.” Darlene continued. “His mom and dad are out there in the cemetery, and his stone is there. But, Bobby’s not there. Now he has a place. Now everybody will remember him. It was such a relief to us!” said Darlene with much emotion.
For still others, it is a time of joy and celebration. A number of Legacy Stones have been given as “I Love / I Appreciate You” gifts, or to celebrate Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays, or Father’s Day. “It’s especially meaningful to be able to pay tribute to my dad [mother, parents, uncle, grandfather, etc.], while they’re still alive,” are sentiments frequently heard.
By definition, surprise Legacy Stones are occasions of joyful celebration. Monticello’s Bill Hustad was surprised with such a gift. “Bill has done so much for the veterans, I feel it is time he is honored,” wrote his wife, Jackie in her note that accompanied the application. “I would like this to remain a secret, until he receives the actual certificate for Father’s Day.”
Sometimes the surprise is revealed at the last minute on The Highground itself. Such was the case with Phyllis McCoy of Minneapolis, MN. Forty- one friends, and family members contributed toward the purchase of a Legacy Stone for Phyllis, each of them having the opportunity to place a personal statement in The Registry. As an ordained minister, Phyllis thought that she was coming to The Highground to meet with a prayer group. Instead, she was surprised by the Legacy Stone gift as well as the presence of many of the contributors, who had traveled from Arizona, California, Idaho, and Minnesota, as well as various parts of Wisconsin to honor her.
Whether placed in joy or placed in sadness, one doesn’t seem to detract from the other. Instead, they seem to complement one another. Those paying tribute to their loved ones, who have passed on express gratitude to have a place as beautiful and sacred as The Highground where they can come to remember. Others are reminded of the privilege that is theirs to be able to pay tribute to a loved one still among them.
The order in which Legacy Stones are placed on any given day is determined not by The Highground staff, but by those gathered. “They [The Highground] let us choose where we wanted it,” said Bud Kirchoff about his brother’s stone. We were pleased about that, because it’s really easy to find.”
There is no pressure to hurry the placement process. Everyone is invited to take whatever time they need before they place their stone. Ellen Packard of Denville, New Jersey had purchased a stone for her Vietnam veteran brother, Bill Schlederer. His death was the year, before, which brought an end to his years of suffering. “I just want to take the stone and be alone with it for a while,” said Ellen moving off to a quiet place on The Highground. When she was ready, she joined with others at the walkway and placed this permanent tribute to her brother.
Many people choose to have their picture taken holding their stone in front of the tribute to their service. Friends and family are invited to join in. When the last picture is taken, they move toward the area where the stones will be placed. A Highground staff member is present to facilitate an orderly progression and comply, as much as possible, with the placement wishes of the family.
Those purchasing more than one stone are ensured contiguous placement. Multiple stones may be placed either side by side or top to bottom, depending of the wishes of the family. Sometime during the process, someone is asked to mix the earth from the previous dedication ceremony with the mortar being used for the current placement. The sentiments spoken at the dedication are symbolically captured in the earth are now permanently embedded in the Legacy Stone pathway.
After, the last stone is placed for the day, there is a short period where the finishing touches are made to the mortar joints, loose sand is brushed from the stones, and any remaining spaces are filled with pre-cut pieces of the old stones. At the same time, volunteers are recruited from those gathered to help take Bob’s cement buckets, tools, and other equipment and supplies back to his truck.
The dedication ceremony is ready to begin. Everyone is invited to gather together and form a circle. A Highground staff member holds up a new vial of The Highground earth and invites each person to say whatever is in their hearts when it is their turn to hold the earth. To provide continuity and be inclusive of everyone, parents are invited to have their children hold the vial even, if they are too young to speak.
Like the placement of the stones, there is no hurry. There is no pressure to speak. It is okay to falter. It is okay to have gaps of silence, while struggling for composure. It is okay to weep. It is also okay to be joyful. The most important thing is that the opportunity to say something is offered to everyone. Some choose to hold the earth and quietly pass it on to the next person. Others find themselves speaking spontaneous, heartfelt, and eloquent words of love, praise, or tribute.
The words may be simple “I love you, Grandpa,” from the open heart of an eight-year-old. Or they may be a short, but powerful, “Thank you, Dad,” coming from the quivering lips of a man in his forties. Or from a woman speaking to her father with her own children at her side, “There’s never been a day I haven’t been proud to be called your daughter.”
For others, the words sometimes pour out. Such was the case of WWII, Ex-POW veteran Cliff Omtvedt. The dedication ceremony became an occasion for Cliff to express his thanks for having been one of the few survivors of the notorious Bataan death march as well as to pay tribute to the many, who didn’t survive. Those gathered listened with awe and respect and felt privileged to have been present to hear of some of the horrible things, which he endured then and has carried throughout his life.
Dorothy Whitty of Menasha, WI came to The Highground to help her son, Bob Mingus place the Legacy Stone he received as a birthday gift from his family and friends. When the time came for her to speak at the dedication ceremony, she took out a small piece of paper and read,
“I am so grateful to The Highground for remembering all the men, boys, and women, who have served their country. We can be proud of every one of them for doing what they felt was right, and no one can fault them for that. I’m honored to place the Legacy Stone at The Highground for my son and want him to know, how proud I’ll always be of him and how much I love him.”
William Avery of Holmen, WI placed a stone to honor his father. At the dedication ceremony, he read the following:
“I never knew my father. As my life was barely starting, his life, like so many other men and women, ended because of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like, had he not been taken at such a young age. Would I be blessed with such a wonderful family, four great children and my lovely wife? Would I be successful or unsuccessful? Would he be proud of me as his so? These are questions that can’t be answered. But because of his sacrifice and the sacrifice of this country’s young men and women, these opportunities have been afforded me.”
“This wonderful place of remembrance to the honor and memory of this nation’s prime manhood and womanhood is personally a connection to my father. Although, he rests in Belgium, I can now commune with his spirit, feel his presence, pay my honor to what he and so many others did to keep America free. This place has bridged a gap between a cemetery in Belgium (a place I sometime hope to visit) and a site that will be hallowed to me, because I know that my father’s spirit will meet and welcome me here, whenever I choose to or need to come.”
The Kirchoffs, mentioned previously, echo the sentiments of many, who find the dedication ceremony to be a very special part of the process. “When everybody’s talking like that,” said Darlene, “it gives you a feeling of unity. We felt like finally we could tell somebody about Bobby and how we felt. It just took such a relief away from us!” she exclaimed again. “It just feels now like Bobby is kind of important.”
When the vial of earth has made its way around the circle, everyone is offered one more opportunity to speak. Those who didn’t speak the first time, or those who have still unexpressed thoughts, take advantage of this opportunity.
The final portion of the dedication ceremony is the ‘collapsing of the circle’. The person to the immediate right of the ‘starter’ (a Highground staff person) stays in place throughout. The staff person begins by greeting the person on his/her left, then moves on to the next person and the next until (s)he has gone around the entire circle. Each person follows suit, until every person has shaken hands with, hugged, or greeted in one way or another, everyone else. The orderly progression allows everyone to participate as well as experience a sense of conclusion to the ceremonies.
Those gathered now slowly, often reluctantly, begin to leave. Some linger a while and savor the moments of this special day in their lives. Others browse in the gift shop. Some families remain on The Highground for a picnic or pre-planned reunion. Benches are placed around the newly placed Legacy Stones and tied together with reflective ribbon, protecting the Legacy Stones from unsuspecting feet, until the mortar has been firmly set.
Several hours later, when the mortar is firmly set, staff or volunteers return to complete the last stage of the process. The benches are returned to their place on the plaza. A wire brush is used to remove any bits of excess mortar and the Legacy Stones are washed and cleaned.
There is one final step to the Legacy Stones process. The ‘legacy’ is complete only, after information about the person or organization honored by the Legacy Stone is received and placed in The Registry Books. Similar to “scrap books,” The Registry Books are kept for public perusal in Timber Frame Building. Each book is organized, according to the date of placement. The information within each book, however, is placed in alphabetical order, according to the name on the Legacy Stone.
The pages of The Registry are as varied as the people, who place the information in them. They hold pictures, postcards, stories, poems, and letters, newspaper clippings, documents, as well as historical data, and much more. Most submissions to The Registry average three to five pages. Some are longer. To date, there has been no limit placed on the amount of material submitted to The Registry. Nor is there a time limit for submitting material.
The introductory page of material placed for the Dums Legacy Stone begins as follows:
This Legacy Stone was purchased as a Father’s Day gift to Raymond, Robert, and Richard Dums from their children. This is our tribute to them for the fine example they have set for us.
The statement is followed by 21 pages of information chronicling a short history of each of the Dums brothers. It includes pictures from their childhood, of their weddings, of their children, and of their grandchildren. It also incorporates a written summary of their lives – their military service, occupational history, hobbies, etc.
The most material submitted to date came from the family of Robert W. O’Kelly, who honored him with a Legacy Stone. The first page begins:
The following are thoughts and feelings, which are recorded for all to read and understand. These are the letters of a 20- year old Wisconsin boy, who was in Vietnam serving his country in late 1968 and early 1969. It was a tough time for the United States, controversy over Vietnam was abundant. The Vietnam soldier was torn between a Country he loved, a war he didn’t understand, and his own people back home, who were divided in support of his effort! As members of a family, who had a brother in the Vietnam War, we can only recall how it affected our whole family. Living from day to day, waiting for a letter to arrive, hoping everything is okay. Listening to the news each night, hearing about the young U.S. Soldiers and the tragic episodes, which took place daily. The hoping and praying that Bob would come home in one piece. We are sure these were the feelings of the thousands of families across the United States.
We never forgot! Not for one day, one hour, or even one minute!
Fortunately, Bob’s story is a happy one. He made it through Vietnam with two purple hearts, and a bronze star. He has a wife named Ann and two lovely daughters named Carey and Katie. He resides in the country just outside of Wild Rose, Wisconsin, and never talks about those past experiences of Vietnam. As the years passed, we began to realize how important it was to record this part of Bob’s life. He was an ordinary Wisconsin boy, that became the “local Hero” by doing what he needed to do to survive in Vietnam. Today, we honor Bob O’Kelly.
Love, Your Family
Sixty-five pages follow. There are copies of Bob’s had written letters, which were mailed from Vietnam placed on one side of The Registry, and a typed transcript of the same letter on the other side. The family selected the most important thought(s) from each letter and placed them separately at the top of each typed page. The Registry also holds pictures of Bob, newspaper clippings, and military documents. The final eight pages are a textbook summary of the history and progress of America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam.
Nor all The Registry pages for each Legacy Stone are filled, however. A number of people have placed a stone with the intent of sending information to The Registry at a later time. And that time has not yet arrived. For those whose Registry pages are waiting for ‘the rest of their story,’ there is a sense of incompleteness. The disappointment in those coming to The Registry to look for information about a particular stone and finding empty pages is obvious.
One glance through the completed pages of The Registry make it clears that it is the combination of the Legacy Stone on the walkway and the material in The Registry, which makes the legacy whole and complete.
The Highground magazine reflects the stories of people, veterans, and non-veterans, who are touched in some way by their presence on The Highground or by their association with The Highground. This is also true for those whose connection with The Highground is through Legacy Stones. That Legacy Stones have become important in people’s lives is evidenced by the fact that those families, who are touched by the Legacy Stones come to visit The Highground in all kinds of weather conditions. Families have come in the rain, in the wind, and in the snow.
As much as is possible during the winter months, given The Highground’s current staff and number of volunteers, pathways to all the tributes are cleared of snow. This includes the Legacy Stone tributes. One Saturday morning, however, The Gift Shop had just been opened. Several inches of new snow had fallen, during the night and hadn’t yet been cleared from the walkway. We were privilege to witness a family, who requested use of The Highground’s broom to sweep away the snow, so that they could have visual access to their brother’s Legacy Stone.
It is difficult to write about the Legacy Stone process without somehow feeling that, no matter how articulate and expressive our rhetoric, what actually happens has somehow been diminished by our portrayal of it. Perhaps, that is because many people report, which they feel The Highground is a sacred place or that there is a spiritual component to their experience.
As Joseph Campbell has taught us, concepts that have a spiritual component, by their very nature, are beyond communication. Attempts at describing those concepts are, at best, misunderstood. Actual communication about those things is what we do in spite of the fact that it, by definition, it is ‘third best thing.’
We fully recognize that even our most eloquent communication about what happens, during the process of placing a Legacy Stone remains ‘the third best thing.’ Thus, The Highground invites you to experience the process for yourself by placing a Legacy Stone, or by attending a Legacy Stone placement and dedication.