Veteran seeks a home for memorial urn

Once kept in stadium, it holds soil collected from military cemeteries

Downtown structure considered

November 19, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Behind the political turmoil surrounding Memorial Stadium, a little-known brass memento has suddenly surfaced.

The Army veteran keeping watch over an urn once displayed in the stadium has entered the debate, letting it be known at City Hall that he and other veterans are determined to find the proper resting place for the canister.

For four years, the sealed urn has been locked in a safe in a War Memorial Building office, along with its contents: soil from U.S. military cemeteries worldwide.

The urn's guardian, Thomas L. Davis, state adjutant for the American Legion Department of Maryland, has joined with other veterans in favoring construction of a memorial to veterans - that would incorporate the urn - near Camden Yards, rather than saving the lettered facade wall still standing on East 33rd Street at the site of the now-demolished stadium.

"The less you say, the more you say, the more someone will listen," Davis, 56, said after a recent City Hall meeting on the stadium wall.

The testimony of the former career communications management specialist with the U.S. Treasury apparently carried some weight with Mayor Martin O'Malley, who said that if most stadium neighbors and veterans want the wall to come down, then he would consent.

Carrying soil gathered from North Africa, Japan, Australia, India, Europe and other places where fallen members of the U.S. armed forces are buried, the urn holds earth from six continents - each one except Antarctica.

Davis, who took over this job in 1995, said the urn's concept is unique.

A former American Legion state adjutant, Daniel H. Burkhardt, came up with the idea of collecting "teaspoonfuls" of cemetery soil and dedicated the urn during a ceremony at Memorial Stadium on Dec. 7, 1957.

"There are pinches of earth from every cemetery in the world that had American service personnel buried in it, earth to earth, dust to dust," Burkhardt said in an interview from his Texas home.

Burkhardt, 85, a former Marine, said that the last line of the dedication on the wall, "Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds" was his contribution, inspired by a Roman saying.

Told that only the wall is left of the stadium, and that it also is likely to come down, Burkhardt said, "You can't have everything, I guess."

Although saddened by the loss of the stadium, he said he supports the idea of a memorial near the downtown stadiums.

Memorial Stadium was dedicated in the 1950s and became the home of the city's professional sports teams, the Colts and the Orioles.

40-year home

There the urn stayed for 40 years, behind glass near the front entrance and concourse.

Yet few knew what it represented, Davis said. "Most didn't take the time" to find out, he said.

The urn's obscure placement in a dark passageway strengthened Davis' determination to make sure that whatever happens to the stadium and its wall, the memorial is given its just due.

At the last Baltimore Ravens game played in the stadium, on Dec. 14, 1997, the American Legion ceremoniously took the urn out of the stadium.

"At the time we took possession, we weren't sure what would happen to Memorial Stadium. Now it seems the wall will probably come down," Davis said.

It's not that he wasn't fond of the Northeast ballpark: "We were being realistic. There were choices to be made."

Davis said he remembers going to his first major league baseball game, sitting in the right field bleachers, in 1956.

"I valued Memorial Stadium as a stadium, maybe not as a memorial," he said.

With the state-funded demolition of the stadium, built in 1954, nearing the end, he said, "We figured when it became serious, someone would want to know about the urn."

After all, he said, it is part of what made the stadium a memorial.

A new campaign

Now Davis and other leading veterans in a state with a large number of Legionnaires are pressing for a dignified design and a prominent space for a new memorial and the urn.

That place could be a curving promenade built between PSINet Stadium and Camden Yards, where passers-by could view the urn and the last line of the stadium dedication, with the original stainless-steel lettering.

No public funds have been allocated for a memorial, which could cost at least $1 million, Davis said. But a consensus is growing in the Maryland veterans community that time is of the essence in establishing a new memorial site because the World War II veterans are well into old age.

Davis, a married father of three, lives in Chesapeake Beach and works in a building across from City Hall.

Explaining the significance of cherishing soil where the bodies of soldiers are buried, he said: "When you're in combat, you're not fighting for your country, but the guy next to you. It's a symbol of remembrance, and when it's someone who saved your life, you tend to take that very seriously."

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