Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial unveiled at the State Capitol grounds

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People listen to presenters during the Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial dedication ceremony on the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
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For 20 years or more, Millie, the bronze girl at the center of the “Promise of Youth” statue at the southern end of the State Capitol Mall, reached out from a broken reflecting pool that leaked water. It leaked so badly, in fact, that it dripped into an underground tunnel, creating a sloppy, wet and potentially dangerous experience for state workers traveling between government offices, as well as an unlikely welcome for visitors to the Veterans Service Building.

Then came John Kraemer, a retired financial planner from Stillwater and a Vietnam-era veteran of the Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth. Kraemer sought a fitting memorial to the state’s 72 recipients of the Medal of Honor — the highest military decoration for individuals who have shown exemplary character and valor in combat — before the last of them died. Little did he expect planning, fundraising and construction would span an entire decade, or that when it was done, the immortal Millie would sit at its center.

People listen to presenters during the Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial dedication ceremony on the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

On Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz joined a who’s who of veterans and planners to unveil the Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial, a $1 million addition to the decorated walkway at the State Capitol Mall’s southern entrance and a straight shot to the Capitol’s majestic front doors.

Gone is the broken reflecting pool. After spending years disassembled during construction and stored well outside the city, Millie has returned to her perch inside six large bronze leaves, which now sit on a sizable base decorated with flowing water.

Around her, two granite walls have been carved with the six Medal of Honor values: Courage, Sacrifice, Patriotism, Citizenship, Integrity and Commitment.

‘A LOT OF CHALLENGES’

Rather than replace Millie’s 1950s-era “Promise of Youth” installation, the new memorial encircles it and literally elevates it.

Construction, completed by general contractor Versacon, of New Hope, began in the fall of 2021.

“There were a lot of challenges to it,” said senior project manager Nathan Thome.

From the Veterans Service Building, a walkway forms a concrete seam past a bench, a pentagonal design on the ground and then past Millie, lining up with the State Capitol building in the distance, by the mall’s north end.

“Probably the most difficult part to it was making sure the geometry and orientation were correct,” Thome said.

Nationally, there are 65 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, which dates back to 1863 and was created under President Abraham Lincoln in the early days of the Civil War.

The last of the 72 recipients from Minnesota, Leo Thorsness, a Vietnam-era colonel in the U.S. Air Force, died in 2018.

A CENTURY-OLD VISION

Thursday’s ceremonial dedication was attended by five Medal of Honor recipients from around the country and included a cannon volley, a vintage military aircraft flyover, memorabilia from the Minnesota Military and Veterans Museum, music by the 34th Infantry Division “Red Bull” Band and attendance by cadets from St. Thomas Academy, a military high school in Mendota Heights.

Kraemer, who chaired the effort to erect the memorial, said he discovered during his painstaking fundraising efforts that before wrapping up his tenure in the early 1900s, renowned State Capitol architect Cass Gilbert drew a hand sketch of where he’d like to see a veterans memorial — the most prominent spot he could think of.

Today, some 19 to 24 different statues and memorials line the mall, depending upon how one counts, and the Medal of Honor Memorial completes Gilbert’s century-old vision.

So what took so long?

Organizers said delays included waiting for the underground tunnel to be insulated, as well as a complicated state fundraising effort that required Kraemer’s nonprofit to seek private matching funds.

Paul Mandell, former executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, said the $1 million memorial relied upon hefty contributions from both the state Legacy Act and multiple veterans’ groups. Partial funding sat around untouched for so long that it expired.

“At one point, because the money had come through tax dollars instead of bonds, it canceled,” recalled Mandell, with a chuckle. “We didn’t even know what had happened. The money went away, and then we had to go and ask for it again.”

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