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A heroic effort for heroes
Citizens gather to celebrate construction of Veterans Park of Effingham County
Veterans Park
Audience members stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the Feb. 28 ceremony at Veterans Park of Effingham County. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
Veterans Park
With Ruth Lee and Lamar Crosby behind him, Mose Mock leads the audience in the singing of the national anthem during the Feb. 28 Veterans Park ceremony. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

SPRINGFIELD — Respect was recently paid to the heroic effort to build an enduring memorial to Effingham County’s veterans.

More than 100 people gathered at Veterans Park of Effingham County on Feb. 28 to observe the 20th anniversary of the day that the idea for the facility started to become a reality.

“I’m glad that you got the word and you took some time out of your day to be here with us,” Danny Burgstiner said while welcoming the crowed on a pleasant, sun-drenched day.

The Rev. Delmons White offered the invocation just like he did when ground was broken for the beautiful, pine-laden park on Ga. Hwy 21 two decades ago.

“Thank you, God, for those who are in charge of keeping this place a worthy place to come and visit, and to have all our relatives to come and take part in,” White said.

After the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national  anthem, Ruth Lee stepped to the podium. Burgstiner introduced her, saying the park would not exist without her.

Ruth was a member of the initial planning group than included Lamar Crosby, James Sapp, Fred Griffin, Henry Wilkins and George Usher.

“Twenty years! Can you believe it? The (Veterans Park of Effingham County Board) is very proud of this park that was built by the community and it is my privilege as a member of the board to welcome you,” she said.

Lee credited divine support for the construction of the park, which includes  a granite wall that features the names of more than 3,800 local men and women who served the United States in the military. It also includes 60 names of men killed in action. 

“(God) gave us the strength and the guidance to do it,” she said. “This park honors all of the veterans from this county from 1776 to what is happening today. It’s really a park that honors veterans all across the country.”

The idea for the park was Lee’s idea.

“(When) we started off, we didn’t have any money,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were going to do or how we were going to do it.”

Lee, editor of a publication entitled “The Park” that was distributed to the crowd by Effingham County JROTC cadets, said it took 33 months to complete the park. The magazine, published by Julie Hales, lists early park volunteers and benefactors.

“The story of the park is, ‘A community builds a veterans park,’” she said.

Lee unveiled a large photo of many of the original volunteers when they started clearing ground for the park.

“That is a good example of how a community comes together and builds a park,” she said.

Rep. Jon Burns succeeded Lee at the podium. He immediately asked the crowd to honor her with applause for her park efforts and it quickly obliged.

Burns then prepared to read House Resolution 246 which recognizes the park’s anniversary and importance. It was drawn up by him and Rep. Bill Hitchens.

He said, “It is our great honor to ensure that when a great event like this happens in this county — the development and creation of this park takes place — it is special not only to us but, I think, one of the best veterans parks and remembrances anywhere in the state and certainly in the country,” Burns said. “We are going to make sure that we note this in the history of our state.”

After reading the proclamation, Burns said, “Ms. Ruth, I am pleased and honored to present this to you as part of the history of this park.”

Crosby, a former Army officer and county administrator, followed by diving deeply into the park’s history. Before starting, he asked the audience to scan the facility.

He said, “To me, it’s beautiful. It’s awe inspiring. I’s a place to come and reflect. It certainly honors all service members who have served our country over the years.”

Crosby recalled that Lee’s original idea was for the park to be located just south of Rahn Road near the current home of the Georgia State Patrol. As county administrator, however, he knew that the county-owned property that was eventually chosen was available.

“In those days, this was a jungle,” he said. “Well, not quite a jungle. It was undergrowth. It was solid trees.”

After showing the space to Lee in January 2001, they agreed it was “the right site.”

“We quickly started looking for others of like mind who would help put this project in motion and bring it to fruition,” Crosby said. “We talked to the American Legion and they were willing to help. We talked to a number of other people and some of those will get mentioned as we go along, and formed the initial group to being the process (on Feb. 28, 2001).”

The original board’s first order of business was to make sure the group could acquire the desired property. The Effingham County Board of Commissioners embraced the concept for the park enthusiastically and agreed the site was perfect.

“We had the place. We had an idea,” Crosby said. “Ruth had drawn out a design on a piece of paper and that was it. So how do we turn that into something that we can build?

“Well, first we looked for an architect and we threw some names around. There was one in particular that we knew that had done some work for the county and lived in the county, and was involved in civic organizations in the county, That person was Monica Mastrianni.”

Mastrianni accepted the request to be involved at no cost to the board. 

“She took (Lee’s drawing) and made what you see today,” Crosby said. 

Mastrianni stuck to Lee’s design but spread it out.

“Now, what we started with probably wouldn’t have filled half this space,” Crosby said, “but we had it, so why not take advantage of it?”

Mastrianni stuck with the project until it was finished.

“She volunteered all that time,” Crosby said.

Lee was eager to start construction following a May 2021 ground breaking but it was decided that the board needed to get some money in the bank first. It set out to collect $150,000 of its $300,000 before beginning the work.

“To do that, you’ve got to do fundraising,” Crosby said. “Everybody on that board, everybody that was part of that group and a number of other people that we started pulling in at that time to help us in specific areas volunteered to assist with fundraising.

“It was one of the most phenomenal things that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Crosby said residents generously donated time, money, materials and expertise.

“What became apparent immediately was a tremendous outpouring of support from the community,” he said. “It was phenomenal that everybody you talked to in Effingham County — if you for something for the veterans park, if you asked for money, if you asked for anything — the answer was always ‘yes’ because they saw the concept, they saw the vision and were willing to be a part of it and it’s been that way ever since.”

Harvey Kieffer, Crosby’s neighbor, supervised the construction at no cost after he was approached for recommendations.

“And that was the second of the major developments that made this park what it is today,” Crosby said. “... From that day until the end of construction, Harvy Kieffer was committed to the veterans park and he was here many, many days. Some days here was here with a shovel moving rock or moving dirt.”

Kieffer died in 2016 but his wife, Mary, and other family members were on hand for the celebration.

“To them, we say thanks for all that Harvey did to make this park what it is today,” Crosby said. “Clearly, he was critical to it.”

State and local governments helped fund construction but citizens provided the majority of the $375,000 that was spent. The board obtained a loan during the process but collected enough money to pay it off in three months.

Crosby said Kieffer estimated that $1 million of in-kind services were provided to the cause.

“It was an adventure, and it was a worthwhile adventure,” Crosby said.