Penn State

Penn State professor emeritus looks back on experience as lead architect of Vietnam Women’s Memorial

Twenty years ago, George Dickie watched as a nation finally thanked its female Vietnam War veterans.

Dickie, a Penn State landscape architecture professor at the time, stood in the crowd gathered on Nov. 11, 1993, for the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

He was no mere spectator.

The memorial honoring the 11,500 women who served in Vietnam, and the roughly 265,000 in the military during the war, bore his touches.

After helping choose the memorial’s site in Constitution Gardens, Dickie designed the setting for sculptor Glenna Goodacre’s bronze statue of three nurses and a wounded soldier.

One nurse, sitting on sand bags, tends to the man lying on her lap while another scans the sky for the medevac helicopter. The third sits behind the bags, overcome, spent or both.

“It’s a marvelous piece,” said Dickie, a professor emeritus and architectural consultant still living in State College.

During the site selection, he learned firsthand how much it represents.

One day, he suggested a spot closer to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the famous and controversial 1982 monument commonly called “The Wall.”

His thought was visitors overcome with emotion could sit in the wooded area and compose themselves.

He wound up touching a nerve.

Diane Carlson Evans, a former Army nurse, and her sister veterans on the memorial board of directors recoiled from the proposal. That’s not what we want at all, they told Dickie.

“They said, ‘We will not be a sympathetic balcony overlooking The Wall,’ ” he recalled. “They did not want to be diminished by the sort of servitude of that selection. They wanted something strong.”

He was taken aback by their passionate rejection — and also inspired from it while working with the national Commission of Fine Arts, the National Park Service and other guiding organizations.

“It really hit me that it had nothing to do with these Washingtonians, the guardians supposedly of art, who wanted the sculpture to be nondescript,” he said.

“They wanted something like The Wall, something abstract. But the women, I think, needed this, and I think it was that spirit I wasn’t going to contradict.”

Over the course of his international career, Dickie amassed a long list of accomplishments.

Educated at the University of Edinburgh in his native Scotland and, after emigrating to the United States, at the University of Pennsylvania, he designed several parks in the St. Louis area. In Saudi Arabia, he served as the senior landscape architect for the Jiddah International Airport. London displays his Royal Tank Regiment Memorial design.

In Washington, among his many credits, he designed the Kahlil Gibran Memorial to the Lebanese writer. He also was the senior planner for the site selection of the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the principal landscape architect for Constitution Gardens, a 45-acre park dedicated in 1972.

Among his proudest moments, he said, was the Vietnam Women’s Memorial

He joined the project as a senior designer with the Washington architecture firm of Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum, initially spending two years with the site selection process. He then was asked to reconcile the two artists who created the final designs chosen from a 1991 competition.

“Actually, the jury really didn’t do their job,” Dickie said. “They didn’t select one design, they selected two, and they asked these two persons to work together. And it was utterly impossible.”

As a result, the memorial directors ditched both and turned to the runner-up, Goodacre. By then, Dickie had accepted a faculty position at Penn State, but directors asked him to continue as the site designer.

He visited Goodacre at her Santa Fe, N.M., studio and beheld her sculpture in progress. Its emotional power impressed him then — and even more after hearing about the experiences of young nurses thrown into combat hospitals awash in blood, the helicopters constantly arriving full of torn men.

“The sculpture is very evocative of what went on in their activities,” Dickie said. “I said to Glenna, ‘What do you want to do with this?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

So Dickie set out with his sketches, photographs and renderings. His final site design included bench nooks for viewing the statue, and a border of yellowood trees, each representing a branch of the military.

He also persuaded Goodacre to place the statue on a plinth, a pedestal for encouraging people to leave mementos and discouraging them from climbing on the 7-foot high figures. Later, after the dedication, he led a team that built a walkway from the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial to form a loop for visitors.

Looking back, he remembers the early disrespect Evans and other memorial advocates encountered from fine arts commission members who pooh-poohed the idea of a separate Vietnam memorial for women.

“That was the worst thing the commission could have done,” Dickie said. “The women said no way. They were a very strong group, from all states around the country.”

Even so, Dickie said, they sometimes fought an uphill battle for acceptance.

“There was so much derision,” he said. “But you know where the strength came from? The men whose relatives or brothers were on The Wall, they were the ones who came forward.”

Then the women’s brothers-in-arms, their fellow veterans, began joining the chorus.

“Because they had suffered the same sort of derision and lack of gratitude when they returned,” Dickie said.

Support came all the way from the top: Gen. Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Vietnam veteran himself.

“In fighting for this day you’ve all performed a tremendous service, not just for the women who served with you during the Vietnam years, but for all. And I congratulate you for this achievement,” Powell said at the groundbreaking ceremony on July 29, 1993.

“When this monument is finished, it will be for all time a testament to a group of American women who made an extraordinary sacrifice at an extraordinary time in our nation’s history: the women who went to war in Vietnam.”

Before the 20th anniversary, Dickie was uncertain whether he would travel to the memorial on Veterans Day. But in any case, he has made several visits over the years.

Each time, he said, reaffirmed his belief that he and Goodacre paid appropriate tribute to the women who served their country — including the eight who paid the ultimate price, their names forever etched on The Wall.

The memorial, he believes, was “the right thing to do.”

“Women who helped in that war, women who were nurses from Iowa, from Arkansas, from you name the state, deserved that,” he said. “And it brought them together.”