Memorial to D-Day: Campaign takes a toll

Monument: It has been dedicated, but the respected man who led the effort faces prison, and relations are strained between foundation and community.

August 20, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BEDFORD, Va. - For years, you could count on seeing Richard B. Burrow - looking "very executive" in his crisp business suit, as the local residents liked to say - lunching at the Snack Shop and regaling townspeople with talk of the cubic yards of concrete or the weight of granite planned for the National D-Day Memorial here.

As president of the memorial's foundation since 1996, Burrow seemed as fervent about having the monument built quickly as the World War II veterans who knew that many of their comrades wouldn't live to see it.

When the memorial was dedicated June 6 last year - in a stirring ceremony that attracted President Bush and 24,000 spectators from all over the country - this small town in southwest Virginia beamed with pride over the sprawling $25 million monument on a scenic hilltop.

But in some ways, the memorial, which has drawn 400,000 visitors, outgrew the small-town soul that gave it life. And one year later, the view from the top is startlingly different.

In June, a federal grand jury indicted Burrow - accusing him not of pocketing any money but of lying to a bank about how much money had been pledged to the foundation, so as to secure a loan to finish the memorial in time for the dedication.

A trial on four charges related to bank fraud is scheduled to begin Sept. 3 in Lynchburg. If convicted, Burrow, a 55-year-old former Roanoke city engineer, could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and be fined $1 million.

The indictment rattled the foundation and upset this patriotic, flag-strewn town, which is thought to have lost more sons - 19 - than any other American community its size in the invasion of June 6, 1944.

The shadow of a federal inquiry has imperiled the foundation's fund raising, leaving the town engaging in "finger-pointing galore," as the mayor puts it.

In addition, a shake-up of the foundation's board last year by Burrow's successor left some of the memorial's organizers so disillusioned that the Bedford County government considered cutting off its spending for the memorial, angry that no local officials were left on its board.

"I wish I'd never heard of D-Day," says Robert Slaughter, a 77-year-old D-Day veteran and former board chairman who conceived the idea for the memorial 16 years ago.

$5.6 million shortfall

At the heart of the dispute - and of a smoldering debate that has splintered Bedford - is the issue of whether the case against Burrow is warranted.

When he resigned last year, after the memorial's dedication, Burrow left a $5.6 million shortfall, having kept the board in the dark about the project's financial health.

The foundation is now being sued for nearly $3 million in what contractors say are unpaid bills. The U.S. attorney said Burrow's actions damaged the foundation's reputation, credit rating and fund raising.

Still, you hear much sympathy for a man described as a smart, hard-working executive who, if he misled lenders, did so under enormous pressure and for the best of intentions: to get the war memorial built in time for those it honored to see it.

"On balance, who can shake a fist at this man?" asks Marie Batten, Bedford County's voter registrar. "You see that memorial on a pristine, clear day, framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Peaks of Otter - I would dare anyone to come down and not be touched.

"I'm a rule-follower. But I have such appreciation for what has happened in this community - and I credit Richard Burrow for so much of it."

Even the architect who is suing the foundation for nearly $1 million - and is angry at Burrow for failing to pay him fully-does not want to see him convicted of a crime.

"It all boils down to a very simple question: Do the ends justify the means?" says Byron R. Dickson. "If you ask the prosecutor, he'll say no. If you ask the veterans who lost limbs and buddies and who have long awaited some recognition, the answer is yes."

Funding falters

In the spring of last year, the buzz in this hamlet of 6,300 was that the president would attend the D-Day dedication. "There was such enthusiasm - everyone was caught up in it," Dickson says. "There was urgency beyond belief here."

But weeks before June 6, the foundation fell so far behind in payments that the memorial's chief contractor threatened to walk off the job.

Years earlier, the project had gotten off to a bright start, thanks to large, high-profile donations - from film director Steven Spielberg and "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz, among others - along with state and local money and the blessing of Congress.

By the spring of last year, though, costs had outpaced contributions, and a souring economy slowed donations.

After surprising his board with news of the foundation's debt, Burrow borrowed $1.2 million from the Bank of the James in Bedford.

To secure the loan, Burrow gave the bank a list of major donations that had been pledged - a document the federal prosecutor says was false.

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