Midwest City offers support after MCHS Vietnam Memorial project fails to win over grant committee
By Jeff Harrison
Midwest City officials pledged support for a proposed Vietnam memorial at Midwest City High School, after the project was not selected for the annual community grant program.
The Midwest City Memorial Hospital Authority Board of Grantors Tuesday night presented their recommendations to the city council for approval. The group recommended awarding $450,000 for 18 different community projects as part of the annual grant program.
The MCHS Vietnam Memorial was among the six projects not recommended for approval by the advisory committee. The $179,860.88 request was the largest of the 26 proposals. It was also the second consecutive year that project was not recommended.
Several council members and alumni passionately defended the project as a way to honor fallen heroes. After hearing several testimonies, Mayor Matt Dukes recommended providing city funding for the MCHS Vietnam Memorial project, separate from the Memorial Hospital Authority grant program.
“We are not going to take away from the Board of Grantors work, but we are going to come back next meeting with funding for your project,” Dukes said. “I can’t tell you exactly how much right now, but it will be significant.”
Councilman Pat Byrne was the most vocal of the proponents. He said the project will honor many local veterans, including the 22 MCHS students who died while serving in the Vietnam War, and serves as an education tool and source of pride for the community and alumni.
“This project is a huge opportunity for the city of Midwest City to continue on with a reputation that we have long nurtured that we are a military-friendly town and are proud of our history with the military,” he said.
Byrne said projects like this are especially important for Vietnam veterans who were often not honored after returning from service. He fought back tears while sharing his personal story about returning home as a solider during the Vietnam War.
“I can remember when I returned from Thailand after my tour there and we were told not to leave the Travis Air Force base without changing into civilian clothes because of the disrespect that we would receive,” Bryne said.
Byrne suggested funding the MCHS Vietnam Memorial project by removing a grant request by the Carl Albert High School Band Booster Club for a trailer, and a request by Midwest City High School for computers, laptop carts and printers. He said he fully supports public education, but believed the items could be paid for with a $130 million school bond proposal approved last fall.
Several members of the MCHS Vietnam Memorial committee shared their support for the project.
Bob Osmond, committee chair, said the concept originated at the 50th reunion of the Class of 1964. That MCHS class of 525 graduates included about 100 veterans. Thirty-five served in Vietnam and four never returned home.
“They were people we grew up with from grade school on up,” he said. “We lost them when they were 18 or 20 years old.”
Osmond said this memorial is different than others because it honors MCHS alumni.
“Ours is specifically for Bombers that gave their lives,” he said. “And it’s going to be on the campus that they attended.”
Gayle Guffey-Wallis said her brother James was among the 22 fallen heroes. She recalled the day he told his family that he enlisted in the Army and would leave in two weeks for boot camp.
“My father jumped up and shook his hand,” Guffey-Wallis said. “My mother began to cry and he consoled her and patted her and loved her. All I said to my brother was why?”
Her brother said he believed they needed to keep the war overseas.
“He said you see those two little girls in the backyard, my two little nieces (Guffey-Wallis’ children), I believe with all my heart that you keep the war on the other side of the sea and they will grow up in a free America,” she recalled.
Guffey-Wallis said her two daughters grew up and graduated from Midwest City High School.
Dukes said he grew up during the Vietnam War and remembers the way military members were treated when they came home.
“This is a small price for us to help erect a memorial to these young men who lost their lives,” he said. “And I will help in any way I possibly can to facilitate that.”
Sherry Beaird, vice-chair of the board of grantors, defended the committee’s recommendations. She said the committee faces tough choices and believed the Vietnam project could be supported in other ways.
“We thought since this project was so special and so supported that you all would come up with funds in other ways,” she said. “Some of these other grants submitted have no other resources.”
Dukes thanked Beaird and the committee for their work.
“I don’t want to take away from the hard work that you all put into this, but it’s an emotional issue,” he said.
The council agreed to table the grant recommendations. They plan to reconsider the request at the next meeting along with a separate funding plan for the Vietnam memorial.
The proposed memorial would include a black granite “Wall of Honor” displaying the names of the 22 MCHS students who died in Vietnam. It would be situated in a tree-lined circular plaza with flag poles and bench seating. The plaza leading up to the wall will contain pavers and bricks for honoring all other military veterans.
The concept was designed by Tony Callaway, an architect and Vietnam veteran, who donated the design drawings and promotional video.
The Mid-Del School Board approved the design in 2016, and the project is also endorsed by the non-profit Midwest City High School Museum and History Center, where the outdoor memorial wall will be constructed.
The committee is raising money for the project by selling commemorative challenge coins, pavers and bricks and through donations.
Councilman Sean Reed has sold the coins at his accounting office in Midwest City. He said the coins have been popular with MCHS graduates and non-graduates alike.
“I was amazed at the number of people that were impacted from different parts of the country that weren’t even Midwest City graduates,” he said. “It left an impact on me and it’s something that I support.”
The Midwest City Memorial Hospital Authority awards grants for community projects annually. The board of grantors, who are appointed by the city council, review the grant applications and make recommendations. The Hospital Authority, which consists of the city council, approve the grant proposals.