Veteran's Day Parade, Vets on Motorcycles in Ogden, Utah (photo credit Milan Lauritzen)

By Rhonda Lauritzen

We thank Mayor Ron Bigelow for this interview and sharing candid thoughts about what motivates him to make it happen. This conversation  was a lovely, and unexpected tie-in to our November theme: “Why we tell stories.”

WEST VALLEY, UTAH – Mayor Ron Bigelow can usually spot the Vietnam era Veterans. They are the ones who stand in the back at events and when asked, they use generalities like “I was in the military.” Later, a wife might come forward and whisper, “He was in Vietnam.” These were the Mayor’s contemporaries, the soldiers who did not want to go, but also flee for Canada. They were called baby killers when they returned, even in Utah. They have confided stories with him about coming home and being denied services at the VA by a bureaucrat who didn’t think Vietnam vets should be served, or who were excluded from membership in Veteran organizations. That’s why they put their uniforms in the back of the closet and didn’t talk about it. “I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a colleague at a ceremony and will say, ‘You are a Veteran too?’” he said. We were from a time when nobody talked about it,” he added.

Veteran's Day Parade, Vets on Motorcycles in Ogden, Utah (photo credit Milan Lauritzen)
Veteran’s Day Parade in Ogden, Utah (photo credit Milan Lauritzen)
 He wants to honor all Veterans, and in a very different way than with stone monuments that don’t speak and that only get visited twice a year. He even went on a field trip to locate West Valley’s memorial, “I finally found it. It’s a stone marker in the shape of a V.” It says precious little about the real people who served, and it does not teach. Instead, he wants to share the real stories of “Ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, rising to the occasion. Some don’t come back. Some do come back injured in body or spirit. Some come back and become captains of industry. Some become homeless. All of these things are part of life and unfortunately, war is a very real part of our culture. We have very few periods of peace.”

The Mayor wants to share the principles of why they served with others. They did their duty “not just to protect their own families and children, but to protect other families too.”

Before sketching a vision, he visited memorials around Utah and throughout the country. “Did you know

Old Theodore Cemetery in Duchesne (Photo Credit Find A Grave)
Old Theodore cemetery in Duchesne. (Photo Credit Find A Grave)

we have a Civil War cemetery in Farmington?” he asked.  As an aside, to give an idea of what kind of guy the mayor is, we talked about his interest in forgotten graveyards where ancestors are buried. Nearly every year he treks to a forgotten cemetery in Duschene where his uncle was buried as a child. Before the boy died, his mother promised that she would visit, and she did. Although she passed away in 1990, he still keeps her word. The town later established a new cemetery site that did not sit atop bedrock, which had required chisels or dynamite to make each grave. Desert plants have claimed the original space, but he still finds where his uncle is buried.

West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow
West Valley Mayor Ron Bigelow

As we talked, it occurred to me that for a self-described budget guy, Mayor Bigelow has sentiments that run deep. He is a fiscal conservative but says, “Sometimes you support a project that costs money because it’s the right thing to do.” He explains that there are six million Veterans in the United States and in Utah, one-in-six citizens has an immediate family relationship to a Veteran.

Before crafting any vision, he spoke with museum curators and ultimately formed this conclusion: we have enough warehouses to store our artifacts. Objects are important, but he lights up when talking about stories. This is why he is championing a flexible space that will teach through story, and will serve an ongoing purpose for living Veterans. Although it will include a modest memorial hall with names of all the war dead, the main attraction will be larger spaces for traveling exhibits, Veteran meetings, and a service for Veterans to bring their mementos for digital preservation. The plan is to take pictures and archive them along with a write-up or audio recording of the Veteran explaining the item. He envisions elementary students pushing a button to hear from a neighbor who served in World War II, or learning why a soldier in Afghanistan would walk into harm’s way.

A local firm donated the architectural drawings, and and the first $125,000 of seed money has been pledged from all over the state. The rest shouldn’t be hard. He said, “We have support from every major city in Utah, from Veteran organizations, the chamber of commerce.” He added that one commitment he made was to include a physical recognition of every county in Utah since this is a statewide project. He is also proud to explain that many donations were small amounts from from individuals who want to help.

If you are interested in information, or especially in donating or contributing, please check out the Utah Veteran’s Memorial Hall website.

 

Utah Veteran Hall Concept Drawing
Utah Veteran Hall Concept Drawing
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