Many donations came from nonmilitary families.
Three men had their own reasons for wanting a military memorial in Grand Haven. And they worked for a year to see their vision become a reality.
For the past decade, Maj. Gen. Wilfred Hessert, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force; and Capt. Bernie Hollenbeck, who is retired from the U.S. Navy, have conducted a Memorial Day ceremony at a flag pole in Grand Haven. Flag ceremonies and speeches were delivered to solemn crowds.
Among the 200 in attendance at the 2019 ceremony was Dr. Robert Carlton, who has been president of the Grand Haven Master Association for the past nine years. He didn’t serve in the military himself, but he felt moved by the speeches: His brother was shot down in an airplane in World War II.
Still, he felt like something was missing.
“There was a painted wooden memorial that was brought out for the day,” he recalled. “I just felt that we needed to memorialize this in a more appropriate manner.”
He approached Hessert and Hollenbeck, and they agreed to form a committee to create a new memorial in time for Memorial Day 2020. The question was how to fund it.
It would have been simplest to pay for it themselves, or from just a few large donations, but they decided it would mean something more if they got smaller donations from as many people as possible.
Hollenbeck took on the main responsibility of fundraising. An email was sent out to the 1,900 Grand Haven homes, and Hollenbeck assumed that veterans would be the most likely to donate.
“But there were a lot of people who never served in the military for one reason or another, and they stepped forward and donated,” he said. “I felt that was pretty heartening, to hear the respect they have for the military.”
Among those not from a military family was one woman from England. She was one of Hessert’s tai chi students, and she told him she thought it was “a special thing to honor those who served the country.”
“We were very touched by everyone who helped out,” Hessert said.
Carlton said the committee wasn’t sure whether enough money would be raised to afford a granite monument, but in the end, thanks to some additional help from Craig Flagler Palms Funeral Home & Flagler Memorial Gardens, it was even better than they had hoped.
"It brings back a flood of memories of all the people I knew that were lost.”
WILFRED HESSERT, retired major general
There is now a black granite memorial with two benches, a spotlight on the flag, and a wall surrounding the space, with in-ground lighting.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Hessert said.
“This turned out far beyond everyone’s expectations,” Carlton said. “It really is beautiful, well constructed.”
In all, there were 131 donors, and about 2/3 were veterans or widows of veterans. The donations ranged from about $25 to $1,000, for a total of $18,500.
The memorial was completed, thanks to Grand Haven maintenance crews, two days before Memorial Day 2020. Hessert noted that some of the people who made contributions died before the monument was completed.
A simple ceremony was held on May 25, 2020, but a formal unveiling will take place later this year when crowds are approved.
A place of meditation
Hessert remembers his graduating class from pilot training school. Half of his friends died in Vietnam.
Hollenbeck also saw combat; he received a Bronze Star for his service.
“We understand what happens when you go in harm’s way,” Hessert said. “So when you stand there [in front of the monument], it brings back a flood of memories of all the people I knew that were lost.”
Carlton hopes the memorial will be a place of meditation for people.
“The other day, I passed by, and there was a couple just sitting on the bench and looking at the memorial,” Carlton said. “That makes you feel like you’ve done something good, and the community is going to benefit. It will be there for the future residents of Grand Haven.”