From Families' Grief, a Symbol of Loss and Hope

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jim Laychak arrived at the corporate headquarters of Anheuser-Busch on a windy afternoon in April, thinking through his pitch. A company photographer snapped his picture beside a giant bronze eagle in the lobby, and executive Laura Reeves invited him upstairs. He had come to ask for a million dollars.

It was not an unreasonable sum. After all, the St. Louis brewing giant had helped the Pentagon Memorial Fund get started five years earlier with a $1 million donation. Laychak sat down at a wooden table in a suite with Reeves, senior director of the company's charitable foundation, and took out his promotional materials.

As Laychak started in, Reeves politely stopped him. "I hope you're not here to ask for money," she said. The air went out of the room. But as Reeves explained that the company's sales were slowing and money was tight, Laychak quickly recalibrated.

Five minutes later, he asked for the money anyway.

Laychak came out of the meeting with little more than a free brewery tour, but the episode was as telling a moment as any in the seven-year effort to build the country's first major Sept. 11 memorial, which will be dedicated this morning at the Pentagon and open to the public at 7 tonight. Its completion has not been the result of some large-scale government endeavor, but of one led by a small, determined group of victims' family members, such as Laychak, who have channeled their sorrow into a ceaseless fundraising campaign.

Money had been little more than an afterthought when the idea for a memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon was proposed. Private donors would give quickly, the assumption went, and the country's outpouring of grief would merge into a river of cash. The money would supplement about $13 million left over from countries' donations to help pay for the Persian Gulf War, which Congress could allocate for construction.

The plan seemed solid. But by summer 2003, with the project advancing toward its construction phase, the funding assumptions looked shaky. The pointed memories of Sept. 11 were beginning to dull for many. The country was at war, and the government needed the $13 million for other things. Soon it was clear that the memorial's $22 million construction cost and $10 million endowment would have to be raised primarily by the families of the victims.

They set up a nonprofit organization, the Pentagon Memorial Fund, and enlisted a professional fundraiser. But when the money still did not come fast enough, Laychak, whose younger brother David Laychak was killed at his desk in the attack, decided on a more personal approach.

"If someone is going to say no to us," Laychak said, "then let them say no to me."

Since then, Laychak, the fund's director, has been traveling across the country to corporate boardrooms and the offices of philanthropists, making his pitch as if it were a business proposition or investment opportunity. Affable, easygoing and forthright, he has eschewed sentimentality in favor of a simple, direct appeal, applying skills developed in his career as a senior executive with the large consulting firm Accenture.

In time, Laychak, 49, came to absorb the stories of the other families he spoke for, carrying them into meetings with his own sense of loss. He learned that if he wanted big donors to give big sums, he had to "make the ask" without fear of rejection, as he did with Reeves at Anheuser-Busch.

"If you're not willing to make an ask, why would they be willing to give?" Laychak said.

And give they did, in small amounts and big bundles. Donors included AT&T, Boeing and the government of Taiwan. The state of Maryland gave, as did Fairfax County, former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce, and the Philip L. Graham Fund of The Washington Post.

Much of the money was gathered through large corporate gifts.

Partly because of the fundraising effort, the Pentagon Memorial has been completed several years ahead of the country's other two permanent memorial projects, in Lower Manhattan and Shanksville, Pa., the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93. Construction is underway on the $610 million National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center site, but its planners said recently that they are aiming for a 2011 opening.

The National Park Service is leading the creation of a memorial for the victims of Flight 93 in Shanksville, but construction has not begun. Some victims' relatives have raised concerns that the proposed design, which includes a grove of trees planted in an arc, resembles an Islamic crescent.

For at least several years, then, the Pentagon Memorial will probably be the emotional center of the country's Sept. 11 observance. It has cost more and taken longer to build than planned, but in its completion, there is hope among the builders, donors and family members who have created the memorial that its evocative design will challenge the indelibly dark memories of Sept. 11 with a new set of images: flowing water, polished steel and light.

From a window near her desk, Kathy Dillaber has watched the construction crews come and go at the memorial site. A personnel manager for the Army, she was at work at the Pentagon on the morning American Airlines Flight 77 hit the building like a bomb. Her youngest sister, Patricia E. Mickley, working as a budget analyst one floor below, was killed, along with two dozen of Dillaber's colleagues.

Over the years, Dillaber has seen the bulldozers clear the site, the excavators prepare its foundation and the 184 stainless steel memorial benches lowered into place, one for each of the dead. Just as she has observed the construction process from above, she will now look out on the completed memorial and its visitors. It will never be an easy view for her.

"I have a love-hate relationship with it," she said. "It's a beautiful memorial, and I'm very grateful. But I wish it wasn't there. I wish it didn't have to be there in the first place."

For several years, Dillaber has organized fundraisers for the memorial through her community theater in Alexandria, collecting $17,000. "It's been a kind of therapy for me," she said. "But I can't tell you how many good people we lost."

Even as rescuers and recovery crews combed through the rubble of the Pentagon site after the crash, family members began asking how the victims would be honored. Ideas for a memorial first turned up in a suggestion box at a family assistance center set up by the Pentagon immediately after the attack. One was from Laychak.

"In those horrible dark days, he was already writing suggestions for how to memorialize the people we lost," recalled Meg Falk, former director of the Pentagon's Office of Family Policy, who set up the center and is now retired.

In 2002, after Congress authorized the Pentagon to build the memorial, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a worldwide design competition. The agency asked Falk to form a group with a dozen or so victims' family members who could advise and guide the project. Laychak was the first person Falk called.

"It was one of the hardest things I've had to do," she said. "Here were all of these people who were still so raw, still grieving, and I had to call them to ask them to get involved."

To a person, they all agreed.

Soon, the group was meeting monthly with officials from the Pentagon Renovation Program, the agency in charge of the rebuilding. Four or five locations for the memorial were proposed, Falk recalled, including one adjacent to the Metro station, which would be especially convenient for visitors.

"Some were nice spots," Falk said. "But the families said 9/11 had picked the site." They insisted that the memorial should rise on the grounds of the building's western side, exactly where the plane hit.

By February 2003, an 11-member jury of design professionals, scholars, Pentagon officials and victims' family members selected the winning plan from 1,126 entries. It was drafted by a young couple, Keith Kaseman and Julie Beckman, who proposed a parklike space with shade, trickling pools of water and rows of arcing, cantilevered "light" benches that would set the site aglow at night.

The Pentagon donated the land, but the construction cost of Kaseman and Beckman's project soon rose to $22 million. For legal and strategic reasons, the Pentagon Memorial Fund was created not long after that, with nine family members as its board of directors.

Having raised the money to build the memorial, the fund is developing a $10 million endowment to cover maintenance and other expenses. Lisa Dolan, one of the fund's board members, said the families' work will not end when the memorial is finished.

She plans to work on an initiative to encourage teachers to incorporate the site into their history lessons. "I'll still be out there working to keep the whole thing alive, so people don't forget," said Dolan, whose husband, Navy Capt. Robert Edward Dolan Jr., was killed in the attack. "I don't think the public thinks much about 9/11 now."

Laychak, who lives in Alexandria, also plans to continue in his role. Recently, Falk said that when Laychak called her, the two discussed what he would do once the memorial was open. At the end of the conversation, Falk said Laychak thanked her for picking him as someone who could get the site built. "He said, 'You changed my life,' " Falk recalled. "And I told him: 'No, you picked yourself.' "

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