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Sarasota to Dedicate Patriot Plaza Honoring Veterans and Their Families

Nearly 3,000 people are expected to gather in Sarasota Saturday morning to remember and honor veterans for their sacrifice and service.

It’s not Veterans Day that’s five months off and Memorial Day was more than four weeks ago.

The Sarasota community is gathering to dedicate Patriot Plaza, the first of its kind, privately funded amphitheater and art installation at the public Sarasota National Cemetery.

Sitting on almost two acres of land just north of the columbarium, Patriot Plaza can seat up to 2,800 people shaded by a space-frame glass structure that soars 50 feet high. The design is such that there are no columns obstructing views of the rostrum or stage which can hold a 55-piece orchestra.

It cost an estimated $10 million to build and was paid for in full by the Patterson Foundation. The philanthropic group spent another $2 million on the art installations and established a $1 million endowment for maintenance and structural replacement.

Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation, said there’s a back-story on why the foundation wanted to partner with the federally run veterans’ cemetery.

“We actually traced back the roots of the wealth that created the Patterson Foundation,” Jacobs said. “We traced back to the mid-1800s when Joseph Medill bought into the troubled Chicago Tribune for two reasons: one to make money and two to create Republican Party to get Lincoln elected.”

It was under President Abraham Lincoln that Congress authorized buying land for the first national cemetery in 1862.

But the connections don’t stop there. Two of Medill’s grandsons served in World War I and his great grandson, James J. Patterson, graduated from West Point. Patterson’s widow, Dorothy Clarke Patterson, created the foundation.

Fast forward to 2008 and the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sarasota National Cemetery.

“They anticipated 1,000 people going to the groundbreaking and 3,000 showed up in the middle of July, hot summer days, to turn a spade of dirt,” Jacobs said. “That speaks to the military service in the region with over 100,000 veterans living in this area.”

Where there was no shade, Jacobs saw opportunity to honor those who have served the country and their families.

Jacobs worked with Steve Muro, the Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, to create the private-public partnership that allowed the enhancement of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

That included seven public art installations.

“Public art sparks thinking, reflection. It helps you ponder what has happened, what could happen. So we thought let us bring art into Patriot Plaza and then it becomes a place of deep experience beyond any performance or exhibit,” Jacobs said.

As the son of a veteran, the Sarasota National Cemetery director John Rosentrater is especially excited about the photographic  art installation.

“I’m just hoping that the conversations that can get started by the artwork that takes place where children or grandchildren or spouses are asking their loved ones, ‘Do these pictures depict for you what happened?’” Rosentrater said.

The former Sarasota National Cemetery director, Sandra Beckley, retired after 39 years with the VA. She served as the consultant on the project.

She read a quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address that is posted at the east entrance to Patriot Plaza.

“Let us strive on … to care for him who shall have borne the battle for his widow and his orphan,” Beckley said. “That is part of the whole VA as well as NCA (National Cemetery Administrtaion). It’s their motto and their mission.”

Beckley was part of the selection committee that chose four artists after a national search to help create the seven art installations define Patriot Plaza. Among the artworks are two spires and mosaics by Ellen Driscoll, bronze eagle sculptures at the east entrance by Ann Hirsch called “Home” and two “Guardian Eagles” at the west entrance by Pablo Eduardo.

Larry Kirkland has two installations “Testimonies” and “Witness to Mission” where photographs are mounted in marble columns or plinths.

“They cut a small frame out of the marble and inserted these pictures,” Beckley said. The “Witness to Mission” exhibit features 44 photographs Kirkland and Kenny Irby, founder of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies  photojournalism program, selected and paired for display along the northern perimeter sidewalk.

On the plaza above is Kirkland’s other display which features photos pressed between glass  and suspended in a whole cut from the marble columns. Each column is inscribed with a word such as “Service” or “Conflict” and with a passage from a veteran or family member.

“Larry Kirkland picked this marble because it’s the same marble used in the headstones that we see right adjacent to us,” Beckley said. “When he was here for the installation, he said there was no way to separate Patriot Plaza from Sarasota National Cemetery or Sarasota National Cemetery from Patriot Plaza. Now that they are together they are one.”

The Sarasota National Cemetery and Patriot Plaza are open from sun up to sun down seven days a week and you don’t need to be a veteran or have someone interned there to visit, experience the art and contemplate the sacrifice of the veterans now at rest there.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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