It’s a crisp November afternoon, and construction workers are finishing the Arkansas Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial behind the Capitol. Johnny Reep is there, too, talking to crane operators, describing the memorial, and remembering what it took to get to this point.
Reep, a 30-year veteran of the Little Rock Fire Department, started working on the project in 1994, nine years after the idea was born. In 2000, he became chairman of what — $1.3 million dollars’ worth of concrete and bronze later — he still calls a “kitchen table project.”
Even though he’s been retired for a while, Reep is passionate about firefighting, and that’s part of what drove him to help build this memorial. “It’s like being in a deer camp every third day. … You fight over little mundane things,” he said of a firefighters’ day-to-day life. “You argue over football teams that might be playing on television, and then when the alarm hits, you’re all one team going together, so it’s a great environment.”
The names of 99 Arkansas firefighters killed in the line of duty are engraved on the memorial’s wall – the first being Fort Smith’s Julius Deiser, who died April 4, 1889, and the latest being Donald Jones of Jacksonville, who died March 19, 2012. Three cases are pending. There is space for a total of 224.
The memorial’s centerpiece will be the Win Rockefeller Fountain of Faith, named for the state’s late lieutenant governor who made the first big gift, a $100,000 donation that required the committee to raise a $300,000 match. Standing 11-feet-six-inches tall and weighing 5,000 pounds, the bronze fountain features representations of four firefighters from different eras and types of service. Retired St. Louis firefighter Robert Daus was the sculptor.
There were times through the years when the project appeared about to burn out. When Reep joined the effort in 1994, $3,900 had been raised after nine years. A 1997 chemical plant fire in West Helena that killed three firefighters — Stewart Warren, Ed Hudson and Reginald Robinson – was the catalyst that helped restart the effort.
Sparks began to appear. There was the Rockefeller gift, and then Gov. Mike Huckabee, the son of a firefighter, signed the legislation granting the group a spot on the Capitol grounds. The day Huckabee signed the bill, the architectural firm, what is now Jackson Brown Palculict, delivered the plans. It had been the only one of 36 firms solicited to indicate interest. Brooks Jackson, the grandson of a law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty, had asked to do the project for free.
By the mid-2000s, however, supporters were nowhere near building their memorial. Reep periodically would visit Rockefeller’s office, where I worked at the time, to cheerfully update us on its progress. He recalls there being only $85,000 raised at that point — far short of the $300,000 required to match Rockefeller’s $100,000.
The group was changing its strategy, though. Instead of making verbal appeals, it sought help from foundations. The word that kept coming up was “education” so, by the time Reep was visiting Rockefeller’s office, it had added an amphitheater. Officially seating 110, it appears capable of handling many more.
Looking at those amphitheater seats with the Capitol dome behind it, Reep talks about the school kids who will learn about fire safety there only a few hundred yards across the interstate from the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Burn Center. He thinks it will be a great tool for asking state legislators to support fire safety. Meanwhile, there’s no other outdoor meeting place with seating on the Capitol grounds. He envisions it as a setting for photographing brides and sports teams.
Reep is now 66 years old. His hair has gone from graying to gray during the course of th project. But true to his last name, he is reaping what he sowed. After three decades, the memorial will be ready for visitors by the end of the month. It officially opens March 22, when the Rockefeller family will flip a ceremonial switch and water will flow from the fountain.
He refuses to consider this a moment of personal triumph or to take a victory lap. Those 99 names are the reason he never gave up, and he won’t steal some of their glory now. It’s the firefighters’ memorial.
“I got tired a few days, but not discouraged,” he said. “You can’t let these firefighters down. Their families hurt every day. Their little children don’t have a dad. So it’s our duty as surviving firefighters to honor them. And that’s a duty we take seriously.”
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.