From Families' Grief, a Symbol of Loss and Hope

Seven years after the tragic events of 9/11, the memorial park, featuring 184 light benches for the 184 victims that lost their life at the Pentagon, will be dedicated.
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.

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