By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffJanuary 16, 2009
Bill Stender has held his vision of a dream since 2001.
That's the year he and two other veterans - retired generals Grayson Tate and Bob Drolet -- committed themselves to seeing a veterans memorial built in Huntsville. Some eight years later, he and several volunteers still have that dream in sight.
Yet, the dream - although more concrete now than ever with the addition of an architectural drawing, a dedicated location and nearly $1 million in the bank - still remains evasive.
"We've been a little bit disappointed in raising money. It's a little slower than we thought," Stender said, referring to the $3 million to $4 million needed to build the memorial in Veterans Memorial Park in downtown Huntsville.
"Money is tight. The volunteers we have on our board have had to strengthen their focus on their own work because of the economy and they don't have as much time to dedicate to this project. Everybody is refocused on their own businesses."
But, Stender hasn't lost the dream. It may take awhile longer, but Stender and the Madison County Veterans Memorial Foundation board will remain committed to the veterans memorial until its fountains flow with water, its marble slabs bear the names of the county's veterans killed in action and its U.S. flag flies high overhead.
It is that commitment to the memorial that garnered Stender the Veteran of the Year Award from the North Alabama Veterans & Fraternal Organizations Coalition during Veterans Day 2008 activities in Huntsville.
The award, Stender said, recognizes all the people who have supported the efforts to have the veterans memorial built.
"It's an old speech that you hear. It's repeated by coaches all the time. And that speech is 'This has not been an individual effort by any means,'" Stender said. "This is really a team activity."
The dream for a veterans memorial in Huntsville/Madison County began back in late 2001 when the traveling Vietnam veterans memorial was in Huntsville for a three-day public viewing.
"The response to that event was much greater than anything we anticipated," Stender said. "We knew the Vietnam memorial was special to anyone who had served in Vietnam. But we were surprised at the reaction from the general public. We realized we needed to have our own memorial in Huntsville."
Surprisingly, for a city whose history is steeped in its contributions to the nation's defense, Huntsville does not have a veterans memorial. It does have a Civil War memorial and a memorial to a World War II unit. The state's Veterans Memorial Museum is located in Huntsville and the Madison County Historical Foundation does maintain a Hall of Heroes. But a memorial to all veterans of all wars is glaringly absent from Huntsville's cityscape.
In 2002, a committee to raise funds for a veterans memorial was formed with Stender as its chairman. The City of Huntsville as well as the City of Madison and the Madison County Commission chartered the committee. But efforts to raise money were slow at first and then they came to a standstill while city leaders gave their full attention in 2003 and 2004 to supporting decisions of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
In fall 2006, efforts to build the memorial were restarted with the establishment of the memorial foundation, which teamed with Big Spring Partners to develop a fund-raising campaign and to plan the memorial. Since then, the foundation has been moving ahead on memorial plans with the help of Big Spring Partners and its employee Mary Jane Caylor, who is "an absolute motivating force behind everything that's happened," Stender said.
Stender, who is the foundation's chairman and who has donated the use of office space for the memorial volunteers in an historical home on Franklin Street, likes to talk about what the memorial represents for Madison County. He is proud of the design and symbolism - the Soldiers in its two statues representing courage, the names of veterans killed in action representing sacrifice and the flag flying high overhead representing duty - that came out of discussions between veterans and the architect, Martin Sisson of Chapman Sisson Architects.
The words "Courage, Sacrifice, Duty" will be emblazoned on the front of the memorial's fountain, and there will be a timeline of all the nation's wars along with flowing waterfalls and the center fountain.
"The charter for the memorial states we will recognize three different groups of veterans collectively," Stender said. "First, we will recognize all veterans of all wars. Second, we will recognize all veterans from Madison County who lost their lives in service to our country. And, third, we will recognize the three Madison County recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor."
Stender is a veteran himself. He attended Georgia Tech on an ROTC scholarship and served in the Army for 10 years. His service in air defense artillery included a 15-month tour in Vietnam and a three-year assignment with the Patriot Project Office that brought him to Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal. After leaving the Army, Stender stayed in Huntsville and worked for IBM before co-founding the local defense contractor CAS Inc.
"The Army changed my life," he said. "I loved the people, the camaraderie, the friendships. Still to this day the best friends I have in the world I made in the Army.
"In the military, when you make a commitment to do something you do it. There's a very strong work ethic. That belief in commitment made a difference in my life."
Now, Stender's belief in commitment is making a difference for all veterans in Madison County and for North Alabama residents. But his military background is not the reason he is steadfast in his support for the veterans memorial.
"This has nothing to do with being in the military," he said. "It is the recognition of something that absolutely needs to be done. All veterans should be told that we are thankful for what they've done.
"And we're not doing this because the military is part of Huntsville's roots or because Huntsville is a defense town. We are doing it because of the 360 guys from Madison County who died in service to their country and because of all the guys and gals who have served in the uniform. These guys and gals willingly sacrificed for us. They said 'I will go into battle on behalf of my country.' As a nation, we don't do enough to recognize our veterans."
Besides recognition, the memorial is designed to also encourage people to serve in the armed forces and to educate people about the sacrifices that have been made to ensure their freedom.
"We want to teach proactively," Stender said. "We want school children and adults to know that veterans gave their lives so they could go to school, go to church and have the freedom to move around in this nation the way they want to."
Editor's note: For more information on the Madison County Veterans Memorial or to make a donation, call 424-0020 or visit www.madisoncountyveteransmemorial.org.