Jon Mark Beilue: Long Time Coming: WTAMU Set to Dedicate Veterans Memorial

Long Time Coming: WTAMU Set to Dedicate Veterans Memorial

‘Greater love hath no man than this’

Event Information

The formal dedication of the West Texas A&M Veterans Memorial is set for 10 a.m. Friday on the southeast lawn of Old Main. University officials, community members, dignitaries from state and local government, along with the WTAMU marching band and WTAMU choir, will dedicate the memorial. Hot dogs and apple pie will be served. The public is invited to attend.

After the dedication, visit the Cornette Library to see "The Great War: 1914-1918," an exhibit brought to you by the WTAMU Cornette Library and Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in honor of the Armistice Day Centennial.

On Saturday, the Sixth Annual Military Veterans Ball is set for the Jack B. Kelley Student Center, Legacy Hall. The Ball starts at 5 p.m. followed by dinner at 6 p.m. WTAMU professor Dr. Bruce Brasington is the featured speaker.

By JON MARK BEILUE

Dr. Walter Wendler was asked not that long ago which of the additions on the West Texas A&M University campus he was most proud. There’s several to choose from—the ongoing construction of the football stadium, the recently dedicated Agricultural Sciences Complex, and though not on campus, the WTAMU Amarillo Center in downtown Amarillo.

But it was none of those.

“I have to tell you, it’s the veterans memorial,” the WTAMU president said. “I’m very proud because it has been neglected for so long. It’s such an obvious way to express our gratitude to families and a generation of students.

“I want our current and future students to understand the opportunities we have and the freedoms we have were helped along because of students on this campus who gave the ultimate sacrifice. In all honesty, this one I directly participated in. The others were up and going when I got here (in 2016), but this was a babe in the woods in a sense.”

Friday’s dedication of the West Texas A&M Veterans Memorial near Old Main has been a 20-year crucible for retired Army Col. Don Watson, a Vietnam veteran, WT graduate and former part-time instructor at the University.Dr. Walter Wendler and Col. Don Watson, retired

“Our joy is to see it done,” said Watson, chairman of the memorial committee. “’Pride’ is the wrong word. It’s just a joyful feeling.”

Ronnie Shepard, Watson’s college roommate, was one of 23 WT students who died in the Vietnam War. Watson was a platoon leader in Vietnam and flew 196 combat and downed aircraft recovery missions.

Watson retired from the Army and returned to Canyon in 1993 as a part-time instructor at WT. He counted at least 88 WT students who lost their lives in service. There is a tribute to fallen soldiers from WT at the Texas Panhandle War Memorial in Amarillo, but nothing on campus.

“We needed to remember them,” he said. “There were several of us who wanted to duplicate that on campus.”

There are 11 streets on campus, from Bean to Smithee, named for fallen WT veterans, but there was no memorial to remember them all.

But it can get complicated in going from a worthy idea to completion. A committee was formed 15 years ago. Watson was told, as a part-time employee, he needed a sponsor on campus. He accidentally found one in Linda Washington on the campus beautification committee.

Approval for land on campus had to go through Texas A&M. Watson thought the committee had a place near the library for the site only to find out that was area targeted for library expansion. Another place had power lines and tunnels underneath.

Then there was the cost. While previous presidents were supportive, Watson was told the money had to be privately raised. That came in fits and starts—at homecoming and similar functions. Michael Grauer, formerly with the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, was the most effective fundraiser, but a true on-campus veterans memorial seemed like only a meaningful idea that would never quite see completion.

Military, higher education have connection

Then enter Wendler, who came to WTAMU from Southern Illinois University in 2016.

“Honestly, this thing doesn’t happen if not for his support when he got here,” Watson said. “I’d been working on this for more than a dozen years. He said, ‘It’s going to happen.’”

For Wendler, the idea of a veterans memorial resonated with him because of the connection between a university and higher education.

“Higher education in general helps promote and sustain democracy,” he said. “That sounds high-minded, but a university thrives in open expression, and you need a sense of safety for that to occur.  These are higher education opportunities that a strong military provides. They are both wholesome endeavors.

“The whole notion that military service provides for free enterprise for accomplishments that generate new ideas just resonates with me. This freedom does not come cheaply and neither does higher education. There are sacrifices in all directions. The military powers a free society, and in my view, education does the same thing.”

Wendler told the committee to keep fundraising, which it did to the tune of about $50,000. The rest of the cost—nearly $500,000—came from University discretionary funds that Wendler authorized.

“They say if you want to see someone’s priorities, look at their checkbook,” Wendler said. “This is money we didn’t have to spend, but chose to spend. We don’t want to brag, but it’s just a fact.”

The 10 a.m. dedication on the southeast lawn of Old Main will showcase the memorial that is a 60-foot circle. Within are five benches and five flagpoles that represent the five branches of the military.

Painstaking research has 88 names on the memorial of WT students who died in war – seven from World War I, which was just eight years after WT opened in 1910, 54 from World War II, three from Korea, 23 from Vietnam and one from Iraq.

Earlier in the process, Watson sent Wendler a mock-up of the memorial. Wendler, an architect by trade, asked if there were anything planned for the back of the memorial, perhaps an inscription. Watson, trying to hold down costs, said no, but Wendler asked him to submit some words.

Watson did, John 15:13 of the New Testament: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Watson said he was told the scripture would need a review by a committee, but Wendler, who initially did not see the words, later said that wouldn’t be necessary,

“It took Dr. Wendler about 15 seconds to say, ‘How can anyone not approve a verse from the greatest selling book of all time?’” Watson said.

Words, in this case, matter. Watson, more than anyone, is responsible for Friday’s dedication. He has been asked to make some closing remarks.

“This memorial says, ‘To those staff, faculty and students who gave their life,’ it doesn’t say ‘for’ and that’s so important,” he said, “I give a lot of talks, and sometimes people misquote the Preamble to the Constitution. It says, ‘…Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity, not ‘for.’ There’s a big difference.

“In the book of John, it says, ‘We have love to one another.’ I’m not saying we can’t have love for veterans and Gold Star families, but they will never know that unless we show that to them. I hope we’ve done that with this memorial.”

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu.

 

‘Band of Brothers’ bond never wavers

43 years later, WT’s Rowell received his rightful headstone

Note: This column was written by Jon Mark Beilue, former Amarillo Globe-News columnist on Oct. 20, 2011.  The column was on long overdue recognition for Keith Rowell, who died in Vietnam. Rowell was a former student at then-West Texas State, one of 23 WT students killed in Vietnam. One of the streets on campus is named for him. Rowell is one of 88 WT students who died in wars, and one of 88 whose name will be memorialized Friday at the dedication of the University’s on-campus veterans memorial.

They are coming from New Jersey, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, California, suburban Dallas and Abilene. They are men in their 60s, who traded their lost youth in Vietnam for an unbreakable bond that only comes from placing your life in the hands of another in combat.

These eight men of the 3rd Battalion in the 506th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division are Sgt. Keith Rowellcoming thousands of miles to honor Sgt. Keith Rowell 43 years after he was killed in a landing zone trying to board a chopper in the heat of fighting with the North Vietnamese.

They and many others are drawn to an event Saturday, a ceremony to correct an error, an afternoon to give Rowell his rightful farewell.

“I’ve tried to understand and rationalize what this connection is, and I can’t put it into words,” said Ray Mayfield of Lewisville. “I mean, 43 years after the fact, we still have this feeling. I don’t know how to explain it. I just know it’s there.”

Mayfield was putting flowers on the graves of the men of the 3-506 this past Memorial Day, a 1,200-mile journey that took him through parts of Oklahoma and Texas. This is done across the country every Memorial Day for those of the 3-506 killed from 1967 to 1971, flowers paid for and placed by the men of the 3-506 on the graves of their 171 fallen brothers.

When Mayfield came to Silverton, he saw a plain headstone for Sgt. Rowell. It seemed hollow, if not insulting, for a sergeant whose combat actions in Vietnam brought men to tears five decades later.

“I saw the day he was born, the day he died, and you wouldn’t have known if he died from a rattlesnake bite,” Mayfield said. “I just wanted it rectified, and it’s going to be.”

That there was none, family members said, likely stemmed from marital conflict. Rowell’s wife at the time had said her husband disliked the military, though others say nothing could be further from the truth. It was awkward, with Rowell’s wife not sitting with the family at the funeral. She remarried a few months later.

“We were blown away by that,” said Gary Rowell, Keith’s older brother. “But the wife has the final say-so. We couldn’t argue against it.”

Not at that time anyway. After Mayfield contacted Rowell’s sister, Judy Tibbs in northern Georgia, in June about the oversight, the family began to work on a military marker. Larry Witthar of the Texas Veterans Commission in Amarillo applied for a military marker. The Veterans Administration would not pay for one, he said, citing unmarked graves before 1990 were not covered financially.

Undeterred, Witthar got a donation, and the Rowell family paid the rest, about $575, for the marker. Simple in size, grand in meaning.

There will be a gathering at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at West Texas A&M University, where Rowell attended and a street is named in his honor.

WT President Patrick O’Brien will make some brief comments. Vehicles will then caravan to the Silverton Cemetery, where Rowell, 25, was buried next to this parents, E.A. and Lila Faye.

There will be a eulogy from a retired chaplain of the 101st Airborne. A young girl from Silverton will sing the national anthem. Bagpipes will play, a 21-gun salute from the rifle team from the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Pampa will pierce the silence, and taps from a lone trumpeter will echo.

Judy will recall a happy-go-lucky brother growing up in Mobeetie, a jokester who would howl in the back row of the Wheeler theater at the opening cartoons. Gary remembered a brother who wanted to play the guitar like Chet Atkins, who drew his own comic strip and wanted to work for Walt Disney, who ordered a quick-draw holster out of a magazine to practice with his late father’s pistol.

But the men of the 3-506, known as Currahees, will recall someone much different, not a fun-loving brother, but still a brother, a no- nonsense soldier who would lay down his life for them.

“There are good sergeants and there are brave sergeants,” said former Sgt. Ed Bassista, of Branchburg, N.J., who arrived in Amarillo on Thursday. “Keith was both. I can tell you as a guy who was 3 or 4 feet away from him, excuse my language, but when the s--- hit the fan, he stepped up to the plate.”

Their Alpha Company saw almost continuous combat from 1967 into 1968. They fought through the bloody Tet Offensive.

They were known as the “Bastard Battalion of Vietnam.” Average missions were 15 days. Their longest time in the bushes was 61 days.

Bassista, like so many, was hardened by combat. Soldiers were killed and wounded daily, and the war went on. There were no chaplains or psychiatrists there to help. The longer in combat, Bassista said, the more emotions were numbed.

But Aug. 25, 1968, was a bad day. It was the only day in combat where he lost it, when his buddy Rowell was shot while being extracted from a hot zone. Rowell was three weeks from the end of his tour of duty.

There’s not a day goes by in these 43 years, he said, that he doesn’t think of Rowell, the man nicknamed “Sgt. Rock.” There’s not an Aug. 25 goes by that he doesn’t send an email to Judy.

He, along with Mayfield, Mark “Doc” Jones, James Gallardo, John Matkin, James Schlax, John Collone and Bill Libby, were the next generation of the band of brothers from the same outfit in World War II. They are traveling from both coasts to be in tiny Silverton because it’s where they should be.

Bassista said he doesn’t think of Rowell as a hero. A hero is almost a cliched, artificial label given by strangers when all they know is a name or a face or a rank.

But to these men, especially, Keith Rowell was more than that. He was a brother, a brave soldier, and undoubtedly a friend, a bond that time will never tarnish.

 

To see more Jon Mark Beilue's columns, visit wtamu.edu/beilue.

 

—WTAMU—


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