ASSUMPTION – Unlike many war veterans, Bob Dondeville chooses to remember.
In addition to producing a stunning collection of paintings based on his experiences as an Army tank gunner in Vietnam, Dondeville has designed two unique war memorials.
The Assumption Veterans Memorial, unveiled at a downtown ceremony Sunday, was Dondeville's biggest challenge as an artist.
A Mount Zion High School art teacher for the past 17 years, Dondeville had a vision of an enormous bronze bald eagle, to cast in meticulous detail, clutching a U.S. flag and a plaque honoring the military, while contemplating peace and war.
The model for the eagle was painstakingly constructed out of clay and Styrofoam, feather by feather, at Eastern Illinois University, where Dondeville had earned his master's degree in painting and drawing.
After completing the rubber mold from the model, he planned to cast the completed product at Eastern but discovered the eagle's size was beyond that foundry's capability. It would have had to be cast in 10 or more pieces and then assembled.
“That would take at least another six months,” Dondeville said.
He contacted a foundry in Michigan, which immediately accepted the project.
When Dondeville took the mold home, before driving it to the foundry, he thought of the individuals who the eagle symbolized to him. They included Mount Zion natives Army Cpl. Karen Clifton, who was killed in action in Iraq, and Marine Cpl. Chad Watson, who lost his leg in combat in Iraq.
Two months after driving the mold to Michigan, the eagle was unveiled for him at the foundry.
“I cried,” Dondeville recalled. “It represents so much to me.”
He was told that everyone in the foundry, which has produced statues of prominent people, including Thomas Edison and Joe Louis, wanted to work on this project.
The eagle, which weighs about 400 pounds, measures almost 6 feet wide, wing tip to wing tip.
In many representations of our national bird, the eagle is gazing at arrows during times of war, or at olive branches in peacetime.
“I put the arrows and olive branches on the same side, because we are in and out of conflicts all the time,” Dondeville said.
In its right talons, the eagle presents a shield with an expression of former Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr.: “The highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one's country.”
This quote carries a lot of weight with Dondeville, who carried it in his pocket for about 10 years.
“It really reflects me and my buddies,” Dondeville said, adding he has two brothers and six uncles who have also served in the military. “We all stepped up to the plate and served our country. I believe that with my heart.”
At the heart of Dondeville's effort was his wife, Bev, who occasionally accompanied him on his thrice-weekly, 100-mile journey to Charleston to craft the monument.
“She knitted while I sculpted,” Dondeville said. “That was one example of how she was a huge support throughout this project.”
The eagle is the centerpiece of a granite structure that contains the emblems of the nation's military branches, as well as the merchant marines and veterans' organizations.
It is flanked by six tablets, carrying the names of 1,158 Assumption-area residents who have served in the military. There is room for about 900 more names.
Assumption is a farming community with about 1,100 residents.
The Assumption memorial was completed four years after Dondeville's first war memorial was dedicated in Mount Zion.
His first effort took six years to complete, because the necessary funds trickled in column by column, fundraiser by fundraiser.
In Assumption, once the memorial committee agreed on a design, all Dondeville had to do was focus on getting the work done.
Norman Bethard, commander of Assumption VFW Post 6577, was on the six-man committee responsible for building the memorial. All were members of Assumption's VFW or American Legion posts. The committee members, who worked about three years on the project, included John Bonn, James Bugg, Ron Mink, Carl Puckett and Bill Sullivan.
Relying on donations and fundraising events, it took about one-and-a-half years to raise $112,000.
“When we got a quote on what it would cost us, I thought it would take four or five years,” said Bethard, a Vietnam War Army veteran. “I was amazed at how well the community came through and how soon it came through.”
Bethard said he is impressed with the finished product.
“I think the design was fabulous,” Bethard said. “The monument man, Dan Spence from Charleston, did an outstanding job, too.”
Bethard said committee members visited Dondeville's Mount Zion memorial, also constructed by Spence, before deciding who would create their monument.
Dondeville said he was astonished by the efforts of Assumption's veterans to raise the funds for their ambitious monument in such a short time period.
“It's a caring community, a patriotic community,” Dondeville said. “They support the American veterans.”