One rainy day in 1989, Don Leon got a stunning phone call.
He heard the news that the Korean War Veterans Memorial design he created with three other Penn State architecture faculty members — John Lucas, Veronica Lucas and Eliza Oberholtzer — had been chosen as the winning submission from 540 competition entries.
“That is something, unless you experience it, you can’t really know what it is like, it’s so unreal,” Leon said.
But the initial joy would eventually sour for Leon, a State College resident and professor emeritus 12 years retired from the university.
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The next year, the Penn State team discovered that the Washington, D.C., architecture firm of Cooper-Lecky, hired to implement the design, had submitted a significantly revised version to the national Commission of Fine Arts.
The original design called for 38 impressionistic, granite soldiers — symbolic of both the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea and how many months the war lasted — moving in a single line toward a flag pole.
Though the new design retained the pole and same number of figures, now they were to be realistically depicted, cast in aluminum or white bronze and arrayed as though on a combat patrol.
Angered by the changes, the team filed a lawsuit for artistic control but lost. Several revisions later, the final design unveiled to the public in 1995 featured 19 stainless steel soldiers in ponchos, each 7 feet tall, marching toward a flag and backed by a black granite wall.
The memorial in Ash Woods on the National Mall met with mixed response. Some critics judged it a lesser imitation of the Penn State team’s design.
Other than to recall the time as a “painful exercise,” Leon prefers not to dwell on that battle.
He would much rather remember researching the Korean War for the memorial design, meeting veterans, hearing their stories and gaining a deeper understanding of the conflict from 1950 to 1953.
According to the team’s design statement, the “inspiration for the Memorial design came from diverse but kindred sources: from both highly personal recordings of the war experience, and philosophical references to the sacrifices of war. Moving accounts by Korean War veterans were drawn from private interviews.”
The statement quoted one veteran as saying, “We knew the war through our feet ... we walked every inch of the country.”
“Powerful imagery,” the statement continued, “from the photo-journalistic work of David Douglas Duncan and others illustrated the same phenomenon again and again: troops in movement, human formations tracing the Korean landscape — and, more intimately, human faces full of courage, commitment and hope.”
Leon can still picture veterans proudly wearing their service branch hats and jackets at the design team’s local presentations.
“All of the soldiers were so pleased to finally have something to mark their tour of duty,” he said.
One veteran’s opinion, though, counted the most.
“My brother was extremely proud that I had this involvement,” Leon said.
That meant a lot to Leon. His brother, 12 years older, fought in Europe during World War II in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Just a small boy who did his part during the war by collecting cans and scrap, Leon was too young to serve in Korea.
But the memorial gave the brothers a military tie.
“I remember the day he found out, and certainly there was a real bond that we never quite had before,” Leon said.
He may not have personally won in the end, but he helped secure a victory for men and women who deserved one. Their legacy became his service.
“Being able to work on something so meaningful, it didn’t put me on the front lines like my brother was,” Leon said. “It gave me a sense of, not satisfaction, but a certain feeling of responsibility that I couldn’t have had otherwise in the same manner.”