RICHLAND CENTER — From an early age, Mariel Kepler had a love of history and a respect for the men and women who served in the U.S. military.
While attending high school during World War II, she scrapbooked every local newspaper article about Richland County men and women serving in the war. She organized her scrapbooks into a large hardbound book, “World War II – News of Our Men and Women in Service, Richland County, Wis.” — but over time, she thought more could be done to honor those who had served.
Eventually Kepler decided to donate the proceeds of the sales of the book as a fundraiser for a memorial that would honor Richland County veterans past, present and future. Thanks to the work of dozens of volunteers, thousands of hours and more than $630,000 later, one of Wisconsin’s most impressive veterans’ memorials now stands along Highway 14 in the city of Richland Center.
The memorial features monuments honoring those who served in 13 U.S. wars and conflicts, from the War of 1812 to the present day. It is somewhat different than many memorials around the state in that it lists all the names of those from Richland County who have served, both those who gave their lives and those who lived to tell about it.
The monuments currently have 8,658 names engraved on them, and more can be added as men and women serve in the military in the future.
The memorial also features 13 flags and 17 benches along with the monuments. The memorial was built in stages as money was collected.
“We had four or five dedications as we made progress,” said Bud Decot, a member of the committee that continues to oversee the project. “Once we got something visible, everything boomed. The important thing was getting enough money to get it started.”
Leonard Frye, who has co-chaired the committee with Pat Greeley for about 10 years, said an important hurdle was cleared when the City of Richland Center leased 5,500 square feet of land to the organizing group for $1 back in 2008. The committee came up with a design and contracted with Krause Monument Co., and the project was off and running.
Kepler was wheelchair bound and living in a nursing home in May of 2009 when the first shovelful of dirt was turned, but she was able to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony. She died six years later at the age of 89.
The perimeter walls and interior memorial walls were completed in time for another dedication in June of 2010, and subsequent dedication ceremonies were held each year through 2015 as various components of the project were completed.
The city has since taken over ownership and insurance of the memorial, although committee members still help with maintenance and upkeep.
Frye said the requirement for a name to be etched on the monuments is that the veteran had to have lived in Richland County before, during or after his or her service. Someone who moves into the county and is a veteran can still be added, although a fee is now charged when names are engraved on the memorials.
“Our original contract (with the monument company) called for 5,000 names to be engraved, but we got to 7,500 before the company said they couldn’t absorb any more,” Frye said. “We have paid for the last 1,100 or so.”
Members of the committee spent countless hours digging for names and verifying them as having served in the military before they were added to the monuments.
There are 2,600 names from the Civil War, Frye said, of the men and women who served.
“When the Union needed more troops to fight against the Confederates, they contacted all the governors in the north and the governors started recruiting men,” Frye said. “Our Richland County veterans went to Lone Rock where they enlisted. Our Civil War memorial shows (in etchings) tables where they enlisted, the train that took them to Madison and Camp Randall. From there they went to the South to wherever they were needed.”
When Richland County soldiers returned from service, they mustered out at Gillingham, and that’s where they were given a stipend of 10 acres of land, Frye said. Committee members recording names were able to find a list of veterans from those registration points.
Frye, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he became more involved in the project when some of the older committee members began to step aside.
“I don’t have gray hair because I’m 71 — it’s because of this,” Frye said with a smile.
The project truly has been a labor of love for Frye and the many others who have been active on the committee for years. Most members either served in the military or had a family member who had served.
“In my case, my son was in Iraq for two tours, and while he was over there on his second tour, I was like, ‘What can I do to honor what he has given to our nation?’ ” committee member Lynn Newkirk said. “I called Mariel and asked if there was anything I could do to help. I had no idea I would still be involved 10 years later.”
“I got involved because my husband was a veteran,” committee member Carol Troxel said.
Newkirk came up with a fundraising idea that helped put the project over the top when more money was needed to get some of the first monuments constructed.
“I was visiting my sister in Illinois and we were taking this walk along the river, and she said at Veterans Day they fill a huge green area with flags,” Newkirk said. “I started thinking if we could sell 5,000 flags at $10 each, that would be $50,000. The committee went along with the idea, and we had good luck selling the flags.”
The flags were displayed at various times in a green space in downtown Richland Center and along Highway 14 near the memorial, and they have since been dispersed to Richland County cemeteries to be used throughout the year.
“They continue to honor veterans,” Frye said.
Other fundraisers included a talent show, soup suppers, spaghetti dinners, brat stands, pizza suppers, auctions and dances. Project organizers also got the Big Top Chautauqua to come to town.
Frye started his tour in Vietnam as a combat infantryman, and also served as a light weapons repairman and a supply sergeant.
“When I was in the field for the first six months, you live like a dog, your clothes rot off your body, you don’t bathe and you eat out of cans,” he said. “The mortality rate (in the infantry) was pretty high.”
Thirty years after his service ended, he was eager to get involved in a project that would honor those who weren’t as fortunate as he was to make it home alive.
Committee member Judy Dutton said she was visiting the memorial one day when some people drove by on Highway 14, saw the memorial and circled back to take a closer look.
“They just thought it was the greatest thing,” she said. “I was so glad I was there so I could explain a little bit to them. It happens quite often.”
Dennis and Gail Maki, who live in Madison but own a second home in Richland County, said they have visited the memorial several times.
“It’s really remarkable,” Dennis said. “It’s so elegant and dignified. It shows a lot of dedication in the community that they pulled together the resources to do this.”
Decot said he believes the memorial helped change the sentiment of Richland County residents toward veterans who have served their country.
“For many years this community was a little on the anti-military side of things,” he said. “Now with the memorial, this community has gone a different direction in response to military people.”
Many people from within the community donated money for various components of the memorial, from flags to benches to statues. Service organizations, businesses and many others also contributed.
Thousands of dollars of in-kind goods and services were provided in donated cement, excavation work, advertising, lighting and other components.
Committee member Patty Pulvermacher donated a statue of a soldier that Frye describes as “our memorial policeman.”
“I thought we needed a soldier there,” Pulvermacher said.
Greeley has been involved in the project for about 18 years, long before the first monument was constructed.
“It was Mariel’s dream,” Greeley said. “She said do you think we can do it? I said, ‘Well, other communities have built memorials, why can’t we?’
“We called it an honor roll because an honor roll can list both the living and deceased. A memorial generally includes only the deceased.”
The honor roll also includes the names of Richland County law enforcement, fire department personnel and emergency medical technicians, “because they serve, too,” Greeley said.
“I think one of the most important things about this memorial is all those names that are on there,” Decot said. “It made it important to the people. You see people there all the time looking for names.”
Different committees worked on developing ideas for the monuments from the different eras. Committees determined everything from what color the granite should be to what designs should be etched on the stones.
“We toured several memorials and got ideas,” Greeley said. “People in the other communities told us the pitfalls to watch out for. We got a lot of good advice.”
Committee members said there are dozens of veterans’ memorials sprinkled across Wisconsin, but they believe theirs is second in scope only to The Highground Memorial Park outside of Neillsville.
Although they spent hundreds of hours raising money to make the memorial a reality, committee members say they are thankful that they were able to be a part of it.
“I was very, very thankful to be included and asked,” said Marge Freeman, who served in the Army from 1984 to 2010. “A lot of people put in a lot of work to make this possible.”
Newkirk said whenever she drives by the memorial, it gives her a sense of satisfaction to know the whole community was a part of the project.
“To see what a community can do and how important something like this is — for me to be a part of it was pretty special.”