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'Lest we forget' | One man’s quest to save Bellevue’s WWI memorial in Downtown Park

Robert Shay, a former Navy photographer, is spearheading an effort to restore a World War I memorial at Downtown Park. - Chad Coleman/Bellevue Reporter
Robert Shay, a former Navy photographer, is spearheading an effort to restore a World War I memorial at Downtown Park.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Bellevue Reporter

A small memorial rests in the center of Bellevue’s Downtown Park, flanked by trees. Thousands of walkers and joggers navigate the paths to the outside of the park every day without venturing inward through the often soggy grass to see what lies in the center.

The more than 80-year-old memorial immortalizes the contributions of three Bellevue men who died in World War I with elm trees planted soon after their deaths.

The three trees and the small concrete memorial bear witness to Bellevue’s metamorphosis as new skyscrapers turned the downtown into an exponentially rising concrete forest. The park went from a school yard to a popular downtown getaway spot. All that time, there was one constant, the small memorial titled “Lest we forget.”

But we did. The flagpole that originally jutted skyward from the memorial is gone. The monument decayed, and the concrete punctured down the center, leaving a noticeable chasm.

But one man is attempting to revive and restore the memories often ignored, but never forgotten with a revitalized memorial that will serve as a renovated centerpiece of Bellevue’s beloved 20-acre green oasis.

Bob Shay, a former Navy photographer, has made it his personal mission to restore the memorial to its former glory.

“I get a little choked up when I see a monument like this one,” said Shay, who first came to Bellevue in 1977. “I get a little more choked up when you find it’s just been ignored for so long.”

Shay wants to keep the monument as it is, a small slab, surrounded by trees to honor the three men killed in the war. He’s still trying to determine exactly what he wants, but he knows he wants to add a flag, like what was originally there. He wants to potentially add lights so the flag can fly all the time. Most of all, he wants to make sure he doesn’t lose the character of the classic monument in an upgrade.

“I don’t want it to be this huge monument because it wasn’t,” he said. “When it was first done it wasn’t that; it was a simple monument to three guys, and I’d like to keep it a simple monument to three guys.”

Memorializing local heroes

The memorial features the names of three men: Victor Freed, Victor Hanson and Oscar Johnson, all of whom died in World War I. Newspaper reports from the time say that Freed died of Typhoid and Hanson was killed in action, while reports of Johnson’s death weren’t readily available.

The Bellevue School District in conjunction with the Bellevue Minute Women put together the monument, a cement slab with a plaque featuring the names of the men, and phrase “lest we forget.” The Minute Women honored the men who “made the supreme sacrifice in the world war,” according to the plaque, on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1926.

The ceremony, which came several years after the Minute Women planted three elm trees in an area owned by the Bellevue School District at the time, was widely heralded by local media.

“Probably no other Armistice Day Program this year was as unique, dignified and impressive as the one by the Bellevue schools in conjunction with the Bellevue Minute Women, at the grade school,” the Kirkland-based Eastside Journal wrote in a front page story on Nov. 18, 1926.

On that day the US flag was raised 65-feet high in honor of the men.

Dedication to disrepair

In its more than 80 years of life, the memorial saw many changes and challenges. The land that the trees and plaque called home was transferred from the school district to the city of Bellevue, which wanted to create a passive park in the area.

Bellevue acquired the land in 1983, with construction of the park occurring in two phases, the second of which was completed in 1990. As part of the plan, the monument remained in the center, with the elms looming over top of the primarily flat park.

Despite the newly minted park downtown, the monument began to show its age. No longer featuring a flagpole, the concrete slab splintered down the middle.

Many people remained unaware of its presence, and Shay, a proud veteran, didn’t know it existed until touring the park after its first phase was completed in 1987.

But through all the elements and changes, the monument remained. The memorial elms were not so lucky. After more than 80 years of life, one of the three trees was killed during a wind storm in 2006. The new tree stands in stark contrast to the towering survivors.

“I know that was very hard because they worked to try to preserve that tree but they weren’t able to,” said Bellevue Parks and Community Service spokeswoman Robin Haaseth.

Getting it done

At this point, the memorial remains only an idea. Shay said he thinks he will need somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000-$10,000 to complete it. He has met briefly with the City Council and parks department, both of which showed a willingness to work with him.

“It’s really a matter of getting the funding for the project and support, and we would work to make that happen as quickly as possible,” said Haaseth.

Shay said he would prefer to fund the entire thing through donations and private money, avoiding having to spend city funds on it. The original monument was a public/private partnership between the Minute Women and the school district, so there is history of public funds being contributed.

However it gets done, what’s most important to Shay is that it recognizes the men, and all Bellevue residents who perished fighting for this country, and that it looks like the original monument, dedicated more than 80 years ago.

“If we do it, I’m very much into the fact that I want it to look exactly the same as it did,” Shay said. “No matter what else we do, the monument must remain exact, otherwise we just have a new monument, and Bellevue could use a little history.”

Do your part

If you want to help Bob Shay in his project, either through donations, sharing any history of the monument or any connection to the families of the men, contact him through e-mail at robertallanshay@gmail.com or leave a phone message at 425-455-2728.

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