Ed Grisamore

Gris: 9/11 memorial leaves trail of tears

ATHENS -- It is quiet on the trail. The stillness is broken by the rustle of leaves or the snap of twigs under your feet.

The names on the path will put a lump in your throat. There are 32 names on each of the 99 poles, more than 3,000 hand-painted in white letters.

They are the names of people like Eddie Earhart, of Salt Lick, New Jersey; Alysia Basmajian, of Bayonne, New Jersey; and Maj. Wallace Cole Hogan Jr., of Macon.

Somebody’s mother. Somebody’s son. Somebody’s niece, neighbor, husband, third cousin, co-worker or best friend from high school.

The 99 poles are symbolic, representing the number nine multiplied by 11.

One cannot visit this 9/11 Memorial Trail without being deeply moved by the names that follow you for 800 feet. They are remembered with the same heartfelt reverence as the names etched on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

None of those who died on Sept. 11 ever visited this hardwood forest tucked away in the Georgia countryside, eight miles southeast of Athens and a mile from the Oglethorpe County line.

But their names have found a permanent place here.

Bob Hart has softened the trail with his own tears. It has been more than a dozen years, and he still gets emotional.

He is a retired from the University of Georgia, where he was director of information technology for the College of Education. Bob also is an artist, and his work recently was featured in the gallery at the Macon Arts Alliance. His brother, Paul Hart, lives in Macon.

Bob’s idea for the memorial trail was born at 35,000 feet, while flying home from New York in October 2001, one month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Although his wife, Nancy, was supportive of his plan to build the memorial on two of their 18 acres on Morton Farm Lane, she put down some ground rules. The trail should be tasteful and respectful, she said, not tacky and over the top.

Nancy and Bob had scheduled their 2001 trip to New York long before Sept. 11. They were regular visitors to the city to shop, sightsee and catch the Broadway shows.

They could not believe their eyes when they arrived.

“It was a New York like I had never seen before,” Bob said. “People were walking down the streets talking to each other. They would look at you, and they needed to talk. The doors to all the fire stations were open, and the firefighters were standing outside. I didn’t hear a single cab honk its horn. It was an unbelievable feeling.”

His design plans for the memorial bounced from abstract to symmetric and back again. The creative artist in him was at odds with the structured computer programmer who shared the same address inside his head.

He did, however, unanimously agree to build and fund the memorial using his own resources.

“Knowing how slow government works, I knew it could take years for it to happen,” he said. “People told me I should apply for grants, but those come with all kinds of stipulations. I decided to do it myself with the intent of sharing it with others.”

He began the project at the end of November 2001. He thought it might take him a year to build. It only took six months. Friends and co-workers volunteered. Local Scout troops pitched in, and a couple of area book clubs helped paint names on the 16-inch wood planks. Bob supplied the paint, brushes and templates.

He beautified the circular trail with nine benches and placed artwork and wind chimes along the footpath.

A little local press got a lot of mileage. Bob did radio interviews, and stories appeared in area newspapers and other publications.

He never put himself at the center of it. There was no glorification or self-promotion.

“It’s not that I didn’t want people to know about it and come to see it,” he said. “I just didn’t want anyone to think I was doing this for myself. Getting credit for it was not in my mind whatsoever.”

When the stories were picked up by national wire services, Bob began to hear from the families of Sept. 11 victims. Several came to visit the trail. Others wrote to thank him. He sent photographs to those who could not travel to see it for themselves.

A friend visited the trail, returned home to Connecticut and wrote about it for a small community newspaper. A woman read the story and sent it to her brother, a retired Army officer who was a docent at the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. He contributed a shard and shingle from the Pentagon for Bob to display. (The trail is free and open to the public at 320 Morton Farm Lane, off U.S. 78.)

A crowd of more than 400 attended a special ceremony for the 10th anniversary on Sept. 11, 2011. A choral group sang. The names of the victims were read aloud.

Bob said he was overcome with emotion the day he began placing the poles in the ground 12 years ago. There were more than just names in white letters. There was a life story behind each one.

Four of those deaths were felt hard in the community. Athens residents George and Ruth Koch lost their 45-year-old daughter, Leslie Whittington, along with son-in-law Charles Falkenberg, a former NASA engineer, and granddaughters Zoe, 8, and Dana, 3.

The Falkenbergs, who lived in Maryland, were passengers on American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. They were on their way to Los Angeles, then Australia. Leslie, an economist at Georgetown University in Washington, was scheduled to be a guest lecturer at the Australian National University in Canberra.

It was the largest group from a family killed in the terrorist attacks, and Zoe and Dana were among the youngest to die.

Although Bob chose to display the names of all the victims in random fashion, rather than alphabetically, he grouped Leslie, Charles, Zoe and Dana together at the request of the Koch family.

Zoe’s favorite flower was zinnias, and a “Zinnias for Zoe” campaign was later started in the child’s memory.

“The day I cried the most was when I went out and somebody had left a bouquet of flowers by the marker,” Bob said. “They were zinnias. They were Zinnias for Zoe.”

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.