Chapel Hill News

Orange County joins conversation about Chapel Hill veterans memorial

An artist's rendering of the concept plan for the Chapel Hill Veterans Memorial at the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery on Legion Road.
An artist's rendering of the concept plan for the Chapel Hill Veterans Memorial at the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery on Legion Road. Contributed

A community conversation about where to build a veterans memorial has attracted attention from county officials and local students.

A veterans memorial committee met last week with Orange County Commissioners Barry Jacobs and Renee Price to talk about a possible town-county partnership.

The group also toured two possible sites at the county’s Southern Human Services Center campus on Homestead Road in Chapel Hill. Both sites are more visible with better parking and disability access than the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery on Legion Road, where a memorial has been discussed, officials said.

The group also listened as Stanford Middle School sixth-graders shared their ideas for honoring veterans.

Student Matthew Geib said his math teacher Lori Merritt had noticed there were no Orange County veterans memorials, so she asked them to design one to scale for her lessons on equivalent ratios. She also provided them with a 3-D printer, so they could make the designs come to “life.”

The students did much of the work after school, and also had a visit from a historian, who talked with them about veterans and various wars. Geib said his favorite part was seeing the teeth marks on a Civil War bullet. A soldier bit down on the bullet during a battlefield surgery, he said, because they didn’t have pain medicine.

Geib, whose grandfather was a three-star general in the Vietnam War, said he was surprised to learn the county didn’t have a veterans memorial.

“I thought I had just overlooked it,” he said.

His group’s model – a “21-gun salute” – was one of five shown at the meeting. The model featured a plaza encircled by 20 bushes with a 6-foot-tall pillar topped by a star at its center. The memorial also could have solar panels, he said, to run the lights and possibly add sound or movement.

Other designs included a flowering dogwood planted at the center of a reflecting pool – the petals could fall into the water, creating a pretty effect, the students said – and a tall, rectangular monument made of glass, with quotes and an American flag design engraved into its surface.

Initial concept

Chapel Hill resident and veteran Jim Merritt first proposed building a memorial in 2009 when he served on the Town Council. The town paid $18,000 to have Swanson and Associates, working with artist Michael Layne design a concept plan for the town-owned Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery. More than 450 veterans are buried there.

The result – a 1,500-square-foot memorial plaza of stone pavers surrounded by a grove of trees – could have five 6-foot-tall stone markers planted at one end to represent each branch of the military. The project is estimated to cost $200,000 to $300,000 and has tentative council support.

They still like the initial concept, Merritt said, but it’s exciting that the county decided to join the effort. It could be several more years before the plan takes shape, giving them time to raise money for construction, he said.

The students’ ideas could be incorporated into the existing concept plan, York said. The memorial committee will meet again this week to review its options, he said, and talk more about a possible collaboration.

Price, whose father and grandfather were veterans of World War II and the Civil War, respectively, asked the commissioners in September to consider ways that the community could recognize its military veterans. A resident told her about Chapel Hill’s plan, she said, and the difficult search for a site.

“We want it to be more a living type of memorial, not just about war and death,” she said. “A place where it’s going to be accessible, where people can visit ... and a place where they can go to think about it.”

The cemetery has more constraints now than when the memorial was proposed, town public arts administrator Jeffrey York said. That includes the council’s decision last year to use 10 undeveloped acres for an affordable housing project and a future fire station.

That leaves the 11-acre cemetery, which is filling up fast. The town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board has proposed building a columbarium/mausoleum for future burials along the cemetery’s western property line. Another possible building site is the existing brick plaza proposed for a veterans memorial.

The cemeteries board does not consider the site appropriate for a veterans memorial.