As a boy growing up on a Minnesota dairy farm in the 1940s and ’50s, Ron Wanek recalls listening to tales from returning World War II and Korean War veterans. The stories he heard helped kindle a profound respect and admiration for those who’d risked their lives for this country.
But by the late 1960s, many young people had a markedly different attitude toward military service. It was the era of antiwar protests and, although Wanek did not serve in the military, many of his buddies did.
“A lot of my friends were in Vietnam, and I didn’t like the way they were treated when they came back,” recalls Wanek, 60. It was then he decided that “if ever I had the means, I was going to do a monument or tribute to all my friends who fought in Vietnam.”
His opportunity came in 1989 when his town of Arcadia, Wis., (pop. 2,402) bought 54 acres of land for a municipal park. Wanek, CEO of Ashley Furniture Co. in Arcadia, suggested to former Mayor Eugene Killian that the park be named Memorial Park in honor of the nation’s military veterans.
With donations raised in the community, the first monument, a tribute to Vietnam veterans, was dedicated in 1991. A decade later, the park boasts this country’s largest collection of war memorials outside of Washington, D.C. Its larger-than-life-size statutes and massive stone monuments commemorate every major military conflict, beginning with the Revolutionary War.
Monuments and statues paying tribute to veterans of wars after 1848 are chronologically positioned around Soldiers Walk. Patterned after similar walkways in Europe, the sidewalk serves as a timeline, with each meter representing a year of history.
While Wanek gives much credit to the late Mayor Killian, his own contributions to Memorial Park are significant. Not only did he design the park and most of its monuments, he also sculpted the heads of clay models used to cast the bronze statues—though he’s quick to note that he got professional advice from the statue makers.
One of the park’s more unusual aspects is the fact that Wanek modeled the heads of some of the statues from likenesses of local residents. For example, the faces of a couple of young Civil War soldiers (part of a poignant tribute to all the teen-age combatants who served in that war) belong to two local boys, one of whose ancestor fought as a Union soldier.
“I don’t think Ron views himself as talented as he really is,” says Arcadia attorney Bill Koslo. Koslo adds that while townspeople are respectful of Wanek’s abilities, that respect is sometimes tinged with awe for all he has accomplished in the last decade.
Even monuments Wanek didn’t design have a unique hometown touch. The World War II memorial, for example, shows the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima, but the heads of the soldiers are modeled in the likenesses of local veterans who fought on the Pacific island.
To date, more than $2.5 million has been invested in the park and its 23 monuments. The park’s latest additions—the 2,000-seat Millennium Amphitheater, the Persian Gulf War memorial, and statues of John Paul Jones and Ulysses S. Grant—were dedicated in August 2000.
Meanwhile, people are coming to Arcadia from around the country to see Memorial Park. “It’s good for the community,” says Paul Halversen, a lumber company owner. “Ron is proud of it and so is everyone in town.”
Koslo has, perhaps, the final word on one of Arcadia’s most patriotic and talented citizens, “I firmly believe that Ron believes that you can’t get rich unless you enrich everyone around you.”
Few who visit Arcadia’s magnificent Memorial Park can doubt that he’s done just that.