A law signed by Gov. Robert Bentley has given the park on Quintard Avenue the go-ahead to expand its scope by becoming the official spot for monuments to honor Alabamians who have died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as those who died in the line of duty as law enforcement officials and firefighters.
That’s four new memorials to join the other four walled monuments already in the park, which was initially designed to serve the memory of a building.
According to Tom Mullins, director of the Alabama Room at the Public Library of Anniston, a movement to create Centennial Memorial Park was spearheaded by former Mayor Gertude Williams as a way to preserve the arches of the old high school on Leighton Avenue that was torn down in 1983. Closed in the early 1970s, the building had fallen into disrepair and a local effort wanted to find a way to at least preserve the front arches that once marked the entrance on Leighton Avenue.
Those arches are still in the park, among the military monuments. It’s pretty much the only remains of the park’s original vision.
An old trolley car, dating from Anniston’s streetcar era, was also originally planned to be part of the park, which was eventually completed with the help of donations from Anniston High School alumni in 1988, five years after Anniston’s centennial.
“The park is something with real potential that people will appreciate for years to come,” said Pat Potter, an Anniston High alum, while talking to The Star in 1984.
Then, three years after the park’s founding, plans shifted to transform it into a space honoring Alabamians who’d died in combat overseas. Ken Rollins, a local activist and member of the Alabama Department of Veteran Affairs, lobbied to create the monuments to turn Anniston into a something of a tourist destination for veterans and those interested in Alabama’s military history.
But just like the slow process to create the park, Rollins’ dream took years to get off the ground.
Speaking with The Star in 1991, Rollins said he hoped the park would be completed by Memorial Day of 1992. It wasn’t until 1998 that first memorial dedicated to Alabamians who died in the Vietnam War was completed after Calhoun County commissioner Eli Henderson was able to secure $34,000 from the commission for completion.
So how did a park honoring a beloved old high school turn into a statewide destination for honoring American men and woman in the military, law enforcement and firefighters?
“No one else really stepped forward,” Rollins said on how Anniston became the “official” spot for memorialization in Alabama. “No one in Huntsville or Birmingham or Mobile made plans to do something like this.”
Calhoun County also had the infrastructure and backing to complete the project, Rollins said. On Wednesday, the Centennial Memorial Committee, made up of local law enforcement officials, firefighters, Henderson and Rollins, met for the first time to discuss funding for the new memorials.
There’s not a timeline, or money total, in place to complete the project, but much like his plans two decades ago, Rollins said he hopes the construction can be completed quickly. Despite receiving just the first donation of $1,350 Wednesday — presented by Chief Bill Partridge on behalf of the Oxford Police Department — Rollins said he’d love to see the fire and law enforcement monuments completed by Memorial Day.
“I think that would be appropriate,” Rollins said. “If we could have that completed by law enforcement day in May that would be great.”
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.