Commentary

Living memorials for those who served

Originally Published: November 11, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The words "Memorial Stadium" appear in stories before millions of eyes every college football season without ever being read. It's a name glossed over in the search for news of this team or that game.

[+] EnlargeNavy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Ron Scheffler/US PresswireNavy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is dedicated to those who have and will serve.

The teams come, the games go. The memorials at 15 college football stadiums named in honor of this nation's military veterans stand in vigil, commemorating the men and women who died and those who came home in service of the nation.

They are as old as the 1920s, when several universities built stadiums to honor the deceased in "The Great War," and as modern as today, when Texas installs a statue of a World War I "doughboy" in a plaza outside of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

The older stadiums honor the memory of the deceased with elegance. It is difficult not to be moved by the 200 Doric columns at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium. At the United States Naval Academy, the recently refurbished Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium combines classic arches with education. Within the arches are large bronze plaques that describe historic battles.

The names of those great battles -- Guadalcanal, Wake Island, Iwo Jima, etc. -- adorn the facade of the stadium. Legend has it that a William & Mary player, upon arriving at the stadium, looked at the names and said, "Man, these guys have a tough schedule!"

Cal Memorial Plaque 1924
Cal AthleticsOpened in 1923, Cal's Memorial Stadium honors World War I participants who lost their lives.

Building a stadium to honor the dead illustrates the idea of the "living memorial" that created public debate after World War I. Up to that time, writes University of California professor Andrew M. Shanken in "Art Bulletin," communities built statues, obelisks, arches or other constructs meant only to memorialize. The living memorials, such as stadiums, highways or libraries, would remember the dead and serve the living.

That is a concept easy to forget in a time when stadium names change with the expiration of a business deal. It used to be that they named a stadium to honor the dead. Now, they name a stadium to honor whoever shows up with the dead presidents.

The living memorial satisfied a strong desire to mourn. Approximately 116,500 Americans died overseas during the Great War. Another 675,000 died at home in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The nation mourned so often that the black dress crossed a threshold. In 1921, "The New Republic" wrote of how that piece of mourning attire had become a staple of the American woman's wardrobe.

To be honest, the motivation to build stadiums after World War I didn't emanate from a purely selfless place. Some campuses needed bigger places to play. Both Nebraska and Illinois had been yearning for a new stadium for some time. Each university hitched its drive to the national desire to remember the dead.

[+] EnlargeIllinois Memorial Stadium
Illinois AthleticsIllinois Memorial Stadium opened in 1923.

The initial grand plans dreamt up by Illinois athletic director George Huff and coach Bob Zuppke included memorial plazas on each side of the stadium flanked by towers with a campanile in front and 75,000 seats. The towers should be so high, Zuppke said, that a spotlight atop them "will illuminate the name of Illinois from the Statue of Liberty to the Golden Gate."

Such plans would cost $2.5 million to execute. Financial reality reduced those plans to what $1.7 million could buy: 57,000 seats and the stately 22-foot columns that endure to this day.

On nearly every column is the name of an Illini alumnus who perished in the war. There are a few exceptions: One memorializes the Student Army Training Corps; one, the Student Navy Training Corps; and another, the unknown soldier.

Michigan coach Fielding H. Yost asked to dedicate a column to Curtis Redden, a Wolverines athlete and native of Illinois. Yost, like other donors who pledged $1,000, could choose the alum whose column he would sponsor. Those donors would be listed on bronze tablets at the end of the colonnade.

[+] EnlargeIllinois Memorial Stadium
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesThe names of Illinois alumnus who died in WWI are on the columns at Memorial Stadium.

Among them was Jake Stahl, a two-sport star at Illinois who, as a player-manager, led the Boston Red Sox to their 1912 World Series victory. He died at age 43 of heart disease in 1922, a year before the Illini would play in the new stadium.

Not all of those with a stake in the memorial approved of honoring the donors. E.R. Branham, a local carpenter whose son Marcus, Class of '20, would be memorialized on one of the columns, wrote to university president David Kinley:

"I feel that as it is a memorial to the boys who fought to 'make the world safe for Democracy' that it should be as Democratic as possible and in that case it should treat all donors equal. In fact I think they should build the memorial and forget the donors," Branham wrote.

The university sent out a monthly newsletter updating the construction progress and hectoring donors who had fallen behind in fulfilling their pledges. The newsletter also included Illini athletic news. The September 1923 issue included a lengthy preview of the football team. Near the end came a list of the previous year's promising freshmen, now eligible for varsity play, their positions and weights. Among the halfbacks: "Grange, 165."

Illinois played games in the new stadium in 1923 as construction continued. Memorial Stadium wouldn't be dedicated until Friday, Oct. 17, 1924. The dedication is remembered more for what happened the next day against mighty Michigan, when junior Harold "Red" Grange put on one of the great displays in the history of the game.

Grange returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. His first five carries of the game included touchdown runs of 67, 56 and 44 yards -- all in the opening quarter. The Galloping Ghost accounted for six touchdowns in a 39-14 victory.

"Withdrawn from the game at the end of the first quarter completely exhausted from the sheer running, never mind the bumps and knocks, 70,000 spectators gave him a five-minute standing ovation, one of the greatest ever accorded an athlete," wrote the sports writer Paul Gallico.

That kind of performance would overshadow any ceremony, even one as stirring as Illinois held the previous day. Huff, the athletic director who traveled across the country to spearhead a fundraising campaign that would include 21,000 donors, reminded those gathered why the university had built the stadium.

"Standing here in the shadow of this everlasting monument," Huff said, "we can, and we will, resolve to keep alive that spirit which they so nobly exemplified in camp and on the field of battle."

The ceremony concluded when Lew Sarett, Illinois '16, read his "Ode to Illinois," a poem of seven stanzas that traced the history of the state from pioneer to that very day.

Know that the broken hosts
Of martial-moving ghosts,
Who gave to a warring world their last full breath,
And won to immortality in death,
Hovering in stadium shaft and tower height,
In memorial court and buttressed peak,
Shall watch for you, and speak
To you of Great Moments in a Greater Fight.
O Men of Illinois, in war and peace and play,
So may we live that when the crucial fight is won,
And the long race run,
These spirits of an elder day
Shall bend to each of us and say:
Well done! Well done!
Yours is the will to win. Well done, my prairie son.

They don't write 'em like that anymore.

The sentiments hearken to a less cynical time when the nation felt no ambiguity about the aims of the war. If anything, some of the sentiments could have used a dose of, if not cynicism, perspective.

[+] EnlargeNebraska groundbreaking ceremony
Nebraska AthleticsNebraska broke ground on Memorial Stadium on April 26, 1923.

Take the groundbreaking ceremony for Memorial Stadium at Nebraska, on April 26, 1923, when John R. Webster, a member of the Board of Regents, implored the athletes, "As you struggle in this arena, as charge across this field, we want you to have a vision of our boys in their more desperate charge in the Argonne Forest, and victory will surely be yours."

Webster may not have been aware that Oklahoma Sooners and Missouri Tigers died in France, too. His words would fade into history. To this day, any Cornhusker looking for perspective need only look upward. On the outside walls of Memorial Stadium are four inscriptions written by philosopher Hartley Burr Alexander, then a professor at Nebraska.

Alexander, as an undergraduate, had worked on a student publication with Willa Cather, who would become one of the great American writers of the early 20th century. Alexander's phrases would be captured in the stone of the state capitols of Nebraska and Oregon as well as in Rockefeller Center in New York. But his best-known work is carved into the stone of Memorial Stadium.

"Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory," reads one.

"Their Lives they held their countrys trust; They kept its faith; They died its heroes," reads another.

The eloquence is not limited to Nebraska, to the soldiers who didn't return home, or even to the stadiums built in the 1920s. On the exterior of Memorial Stadium at Indiana, built in 1960, the dedication reads, "In honor of the sons and daughters of Indiana University who have served in the wars of the republic."

The stadiums stand to this day as living memorials, even as they have been enlarged, modernized and enlarged again. In Austin, the doughboy statue arrives Wednesday, 85 years after the stadium opened its gates. The university searched the country for a "used" doughboy, a statue whose commemoration had outlived its purpose. It's a credit to the nation that Texas gave up the search and commissioned a new sculpture.

Americans, it turns out, don't forget so easily.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com