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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 03:11 pm

“An interesting and mysterious void”

Springfield gets a new war memorial, but the benefactor remains anonymous

A “Sangamon County Honor Roll,” located at Bob Vose Corner at First and North Grand, is dedicated to 113 soldiers who died during World War I
photo by Job Conger

To many, Springfield is a one-war town.

One needs only to consider the internationally venerated Lincoln Tomb to understand why. This is, after all, the home of the leader who preserved the Union during the nation's darkest conflict.

In recent years, memorials to Illinoisans who died in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as plans for a World War II memorial at Oak Ridge Cemetery, have fulfilled the dreams of thousands of families who sought recognition of the sacrifices made by their loved ones.

But one war -- "The War to End All Wars" -- remained unremembered. Until recently, Springfield had no fitting memorial to those who died in the First World War.

In October, the void was filled by a private, anonymously funded effort erected on city-owned property at the southeast corner of First Street and North Grand Avenue. The site is popularly known as "Bob Vose Corner" in honor of the former alderman who spearheaded a drive to extensively improve Monument Avenue to its current appearance.

The memorial, a "Sangamon County Honor Roll," is dedicated to 113 soldiers from Sangamon County who died from 1917 through 1919 of injuries suffered in World War I. Though the war ended in 1918, it includes names of those who died in the year after the Armistice.

While the names of the almost-forgotten soldiers are listed on the new memorial, the name of the individual responsible for the tribute remains anonymous by request, a circumstance Ward 5 Alderman Joe Bartolomucci calls "an interesting and mysterious void."

The memorial's location outside Oak Ridge Cemetery, while strangely incongruous on the surface, is easier to understand.

"A gentleman who wanted to remain anonymous," Bartolomucci recounts, "got in contact with me last May or June, wanting the city's help finding some property to be donated for a World War I memorial with just the Sangamon County war veterans put on it."

The search for a site did not go public because the benefactor's desire for secrecy. "We did not look at any property, and we wanted to put it as close as possible to Oak Ridge," Bartolomucci says.

"He wanted to put it at Bob Vose corner, the southeast corner of First and North Grand. Some people from [the Department of] Public Works had reservations about that site because we wanted people to have parking available to it. We didn't want people parking across the street at Walgreens or in the nearby laundromat lot."

LuAnn Johnson, executive director of Oak Ridge Cemetery, met with the anonymous patron last spring. "I explained to him that the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and the coming World War II Memorial were dedicated to veterans [throughout] the entire state.

"If we had one county monument, we might get requests for another hundred county monuments," Johnson says. "We wanted a good spot in close proximity to Oak Ridge Cemetery on property that we knew would always be maintained." The staff of Oak Ridge maintains that corner.

Bartolmucci says, "We were looking at a piece of property -- a block of property at Eighth at Adams. We thought maybe the county could donate a piece of that parking lot, three or four parking spaces and make a green space.

"I thought we had a pretty good spot, but apparently the gentleman didn't think so. The last time I heard from the gentleman was July or August," the alderman says. "Much to my surprise, the monument was erected at Bob Vose Corner. As far as I know, the design of the memorial is the gentleman's own."

The decision to permit the placement of the monument on city property did not require action by City Council, according to Ernie Slottag, the mayor's spokesman. "It was a mayoral prerogative," he says.

Arnold Monument Company produced the monument. Manager Mary Green explained that the memorial is made of barre granite from Vermont. The anonymous patron "started the process in May." Engraving was done locally. It took about six months to produce and erect. The globe on the top, also made of barre granite, was "turned" to the shape and the oceans were painted over the granite.

Bob Vose served on City Council for 12 years. During that time, he pushed hard for a renovation of the approach to Oak Ridge Cemetery along Monument Avenue. "It took us about seven years to get the money and do it," Vose remembers. "After I left office, I've raised money to get the banners up, planted flowers every year, and improved the signage." Vose had no role in the acquisition of the "praying hands" sculpture, which was originally the focal point of the corner. "The Daughters of the American Revolution had that. The statue kind of fell apart and it was removed."

Regarding the World War I addition to 'his' corner, Vose says, "The director of the cemetery called me and asked if I'd have any objections. I said I didn't."

Today, in place of the former sculpture, an antique-looking street light stands in the center of the base that once held the praying hands sculpture. The original dedicatory plaque to that sculpture remains, along with a lesser-known quote from the "Great Emancipator." Asked about the apparent incongruity of the blend of the street light "sculpture," the Lincoln quotation, and the new memorial, Vose says he considers the corner of Monument at North Grand worth developing over the long term.

Though he noted his satisfaction with the new monument, he added his wish for long-term continuity of vision. "We just don't [want to] put a little thing here and a little thing there. I just talked to the mayor about getting some money together for a phased 20-year plan."