For many of us in Waco, the striking Doris Miller Memorial along the Brazos River has quickly become a point of community pride. It not only pays homage to an African-American sailor’s spectacular heroism in a racially segregated Navy during the 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor but sends a rousing message about racial harmony, a message worthy of present times. And when the sculpture of Miller in sailor’s uniform, standing tall, ready for duty but at parade rest, was formally unveiled on Pearl Harbor Day 2017, former Ambassador and longtime civic leader Lyndon Olson Jr. spoke knowingly of Miller’s representing the very best of our community, growing up as a strapping, friendly sharecropper’s son just beyond city limits — a sharecropper’s son who wanted to see the rest of the world.
And when the memorial was dedicated on Pearl Harbor Day 2018 near the old Washington Avenue Bridge, City Councilwoman Andrea Jackson Barefield, daughter of Waco’s first popularly elected African-American mayor, spoke movingly of how Miller symbolizes the courage each of us carries within.
Only problem with all this pride and patriotism: Because the memorial is now larger than life and available for all to see, contemplate and admire, fundraising has proven more and more difficult. Many people far and wide assume the project is fully funded. Others are troubled by vague talk of cost overruns.
So let’s set assumptions straight. Yes, the project — complete with a nine-foot-tall sculpture of Miller by prominent sculptor (and Vietnam veteran) Eddie Dixon as well as architect Stan Carroll’s imaginative design for the surrounding reflecting pool, brimming of Navy motifs — was originally estimated at $1.4 million. Then midway through the endeavor on city-donated land near Bledsoe-Miller Community Center, organizers learned federal agencies had determined the sculpture site was on a floodplain, necessitating a massive and expensive undertaking to ensure the sculpture was properly elevated and stabilized. Reassessment of the 100-year floodplain was based on what city officials say are shifting climatological conditions that are not probable but nonetheless possible.
No one involved in the project wanted to take the chance Miller’s likeness might wind up under water. Not only would such a spectacle show disrespect for the artistry and expense behind the project honoring a hometown hero, it would heap sad irony regarding Miller’s death: The decorated sailor perished with many of his shipmates after a torpedo sank the escort carrier Liscome Bay in the Gilbert Islands on Nov. 24, 1943. His parents, Conery and Henrietta Miller, back in Waco, were informed their son was missing in action on Dec. 7, 1943 — two years to the day since the attack on the USS West Virginia that catapulted Miller to national fame.
“That’s really what caused the cost overruns,” Olson said during a meeting of civic leaders, foundation officials and fellow fundraisers Thursday. “It was due to that one climate event. The floodplain changed and you had to deconstruct and then reconstruct it and it essentially cost twice what we thought, simply because of that one event, which I think is very important to point out.” Whatever one might think of projections by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency and others involved in floodplain reassessments, “it’s important that everybody understands that this was an event that no one had any control over.”
Olson, who maintains a family spread along the Bosque, added a final insight: “I’ll remind you the North Bosque River had two 500-year floods within about six years.”
In a March 21 letter to the Cooper Foundation, Waco Foundation and Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation, tireless memorial project leader Doreen Ravenscroft explained that the $1.4 million budget was 100 percent funded when project construction began: “However, when contractors were about to begin working on the project, we learned from the city of Waco Parks and Recreation and our engineers (the Wallace Group) that the floodplain designation had changed dramatically. As a result, the project had to be redesigned, raised four feet and moved further back on the site designated by the city of Waco.”
Costs, she said, escalated to “more than double our original estimates, making the total cost of the project $2,693,148.03.”
Ravenscroft on Friday detailed for me the difficulties involved. Upon discovery of the problem in fall 2015, project organizers halted the bid process for a general contractor so engineers could re-evaluate what would now be required for the project to proceed. Besides moving the sculpture site, increasing the concrete foundation by four feet and necessitating “many additional tons of earth,” the revised project required new construction plans by architect Stan Carroll as well as a floodplain study of the final design “to verify that the construction would not negatively impact upstream developments.” To add to complications, the cost of construction materials grew as the economy improved.
Besides the significant contractor work involved, remaining costs will cover three bronze oval reliefs telling Miller’s saga from sharecropper’s son to decorated sailor; a bronze Navy Cross; and donor recognition plaques. Ravenscroft has pursued a number of fundraising tactics, including a crowdfunding campaign through MobileCause to fund the steel hull that forms the backdrop of the memorial. Memorial organizers plan an Oct. 12 gospel music concert marking the 100th anniversary of Miller’s birth. Organizers hope to have fundraising concluded in time for a Pearl Harbor commemoration at the memorial, again possibly involving proud crew members of the USS (Doris) Miller.
When trustees of the Cooper Foundation and Rapoport Foundation learned the project remained financially underwater, each offered $300,000 beyond earlier gifts to the Doris Miller Memorial, contingent on scrutiny of the project’s books. On Thursday local CPA Jim Therrell of Jaynes, Reitmeier, Boyd & Therrell distributed a report of cash receipts, disbursements and payables that showed Ravenscroft and the Waco Cultural Arts Fest had kept carefully documented records of every transaction involving the memorial.
“It was an easy ‘Yes, we need to help finish this project and we need to help significantly to demonstrate to the community how important it is,’” Cooper Foundation executive director Felicia Chase Goodman said of trustees. “There wasn’t any hesitation. And we hoped that other people would see this and feel, ‘Oh, we need to help, too.’”
Ditto for the Rapoport Foundation. To quote executive director Tom Stanton: “If you’ve read the Doris Miller book [“Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement” by historians T. Michael Parrish and Thomas W. Cutrer] and you go through that page by page and understand all that was going on and, honestly, the sadness of all that he had to go through — the fight for the Congressional Medal of Honor — I mean, it’s sad to read those pages. It’s a massively important story that we have a responsibility to tell. To have a chance to — for lack of a correct phrase — throw a lifesaver and be a part of this is really quite an honor.”
Organizers say this still leaves another $600,000 to be addressed by further fundraising — and time is running out.
For Baylor Law School professor and Waco native Gerald Powell, the project has been a long haul, one that began in optimism when he and others at the law school pondered it a decade ago: “I think we were inspired by Doreen’s work with the ‘Branding the Brazos’ [a $1.65 million series of cattle and cowboy sculptures near the Suspension Bridge spearheaded by philanthropist Clifton Robinson]. And we thought, ‘What a great thing for this community. If we have something like that, Doris Miller ought to be a part of that.’ And from there it just kind of took off.”
Powell says the Doris Miller Memorial appeals on several levels, including quality and prestige: “This is the kind of memorial you find at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. Eddie Dixon is nationally known, world-renowned. His statues are in the Pentagon and Colin Powell’s office. So on an artistic level, we’re very proud of it. Personally, I’m excited about the opportunity to teach future generations about the Greatest Generation that saved the world. This is going to be a very visual recollection of that. We have always thought the greatest thing about this would be watching a grandparent and a grandchild walking along the sidewalk at the memorial and the grandparent telling the story of Doris Miller.”
Certainly Miller’s heroics fit comfortably with those of other Greatest Generation figures, including two presidents — George H.W. Bush, who served as a naval aviator in the Pacific, and John F. Kennedy, who commanded a patrol torpedo boat, also in the Pacific. An African American consigned to menial tasks as a mess attendant in a racially segregated Navy, Miller kept his head despite the chaos and bloodshed in the Pearl Harbor attack, pulled wounded men afforded certain advantages denied him to safety and manned an anti-aircraft gun to fight off their collective enemy. For his courage, he was awarded a Navy Cross, though only after some resistance by Navy officials. The campaign for a posthumous Medal of Honor continues.
“The third appeal of this is maybe a little more subtle, but I think it might be the most important,” Powell says of the Doris Miller Memorial. “At a time in our country when we seem to be so divided over so many things, including along racial lines, Doris Miller stands like a bridge holding our communities together. He’s a hero for all of us and we have felt like it was so important to honor him and show that Waco cares about all members of our community and the heritage that we all have. We feel like this is a positive statement.”
That fits tightly with Lyndon Olson’s remarks during the 2017 unveiling ceremony as he recalled how his own family was touched by the Millers’ kindness after Olson’s grandfather, Cecil McLaughlin, died in 1932 during the Great Depression, back when Jim Crow racism marginalized African Americans. Doris Miller’s father, Conery, lived near the McLaughlin cotton farm in Speegleville and one day showed up at Lillie McLaughlin’s back door with two other black men. She assumed they wanted something to eat and asked if they were hungry, reflecting a noble tradition of those thin times. Conery replied: “No, me and the boys are here to tell you that we know you’re on some hard times and we want to tell you we’ll put your cotton in this year and take it out for you so you can get ahead.”
Which may explain why, given our city’s history of racially inspired lynchings such as the hanging of Sank Majors off the Washington Avenue Bridge in 1905, Olson told the crowd gathered for the Miller sculpture unveiling on a bone-chilling Dec. 7, 2017: “I think this is one of the most healing things we have done in this town for a long time.”
The big question now: Can this community literally pay tribute to such sentiments as racial healing, patriotism and sacrifice for fellow man and country? During Thursday’s meeting, Olson expressed confidence in community giving to complete memorial fundraising, including among those who have given once to the project: “With the Rapoport and Cooper foundations, we have said, ‘Look, this can’t fail. It’s not going to fail. That has never been in the cards.’ This is something that in my judgment is so vital to this broad community and it is long overdue. And when you look at it — I guess it was yesterday when someone said to me: ‘It is just total class when you drive across that Washington Avenue Bridge and you look at it and you’re so proud to associate yourself with it.’
“We’re just going to have to double up, come back and raise $600,000,” Olson told fellow civic leaders. “It’ll be done. That’s all there is to it.”