April 16, 2014 Edition

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Memorial effort took years

Jim Gates shows the drawing by Paula Haskins of Walnut Ridge that was used as the design for the Arkansas Fallen Firefighters Memorial.

John Bland

Walnut Ridge firefighters played an integral role in helping to establish the Arkansas Fallen Firefighters Memorial that was dedicated March 22 on the state Capitol grounds in Little Rock. The project was special to many other residents from Lawrence County as well.

Numerous former and present Walnut Ridge firefighters and their families were present for the dedication. They included former Chief Alan Haskins and his wife, Paula; former Chief Roger Duckworth, his wife Angie, and son Jonathan; former Captain Jerry Adkisson, his wife Sonja, and son Colton; former Assistant Chief Jim Gates and his wife, Tamara; Robert Needham and Milena Smith; Barbara Coker, widow of former Chief Joe Coker, daughter Jessica Light, daughter Charlotte Connolly and granddaughter Claire Connolly; current Chief Frank Owens;

firefighter Ryan Jones; and former firefighter Clinton Cato.

Jim Gates of Walnut Ridge, and a former firefighter, shared the almost 30-year history of the effort to establish the memorial.

In 1985, a board formed with a goal of building a monument at the Arkansas Fire Training Academy in Camden. Seven groups, including the Fire Academy, Arkansas Firefighters Association, Arkansas Association of Fire Chiefs, Fire Academy Advisory Board, Forestry Commission, Arkansas Professional Firefighters and an instructors group, each had a representative on the seven-member board.

James Launius of Crossett, with the Arkansas Association of Fire Chiefs, is the only original board member still serving. Jim Gates went on the board in 1996.

On May 8, 1997, three West Helena firefighters were killed in an explosion at a chemical packaging plant. Following that incident, the board decided that it needed to put the monument on the state Capitol grounds in Little Rock so that more people could see it. A smaller monument was placed in Camden.

Gates said help was obtained from former State Rep. Tom Baker, who lived in Clover Bend, and Karen Holliday, former Lawrence County librarian, who was by then working at the Capitol. The board was put in touch with the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission.

The board learned that legislation would have to be passed to make the monument a reality. At that point, Don House, current mayor of Walnut Ridge, was the state representative for Lawrence County and adjacent areas. Rep. House drafted the legislation to create the monument and took it through the House and Senate. The legislation passed 96-0 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate.

When the board decided it needed a visual representation of the monument, Gates said he approached Paula Haskins of Walnut Ridge to use her talents to make a drawing for the proposed monument. With photos of individual firefighters and one taken from a magazine, Paula put it all together.

"The first sketch was absolutely amazing," Gates said.

Robert Doss was then contacted to do the sculpture.

Twenty-six letters were sent out to architectural firms inviting them to design a plaza for the monument. The board heard from only one architect, Brooks Jackson of Little Rock. In a letter, Jackson wrote that his firm had drawn plans for firefighter-related facilities and had an understanding of a firefighter's life. The firm donated their design skills for the project.

A memorial plaza on the Capitol grounds now includes the bronze statue with fountain, a 100-seat amphitheater on the east side and a wall on the west side with the names of 104 firefighters who died in the line of duty.

The monument and plaza provide a place to visit and reflect, and it will also be used for such activities as Fire Prevention Week and for future memorial ceremonies as well, Gates said.

The monument and plaza cost $1.2 million, and the money for it had to be raised up front, including 10 percent for maintenance. A lot of fish fries, pancake breakfasts, as well as major donations, went towards raising the funds.

Sketches of Paula's drawing were sold all over the state for $25 and $35 for framed prints. "We would never have made it without Paula," Gates said.

A lot of money was also raised through the sale of pavers for $350 to $500. The Walnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Department purchased one, as did Barbara Coker, in memory of her late husband, Joe Coker. Joe was a former Walnut Ridge fire chief and served as a trustee, secretary/treasurer and president of the Arkansas Association of Fire Chiefs.

Gates continues to serve on the board of the Arkansas Fallen Firefighters Memorial and is currently secretary-treasurer.

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