High school senior Dominique Claseman grew up hearing the stories of his father and other family members who served in the U.S. military.
When it was time for him to come up with an idea for his Eagle Scout project two years ago, he knew what he wanted to do for the town. Olivia is a farming community of about 2,500 people that is 90 miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and known as the “Corn Capital of the World.”
“I thought maybe I could raise $12,000 to $15,000 to get a memorial built in the park,” he said. He soon realized the project would be much bigger than that.
The project began when Claseman and his parents, Mark and Wendy Jurgensen, took him to war memorials in other towns to give him a sense of how they looked. Mark Jurgensen is Claseman’s scoutmaster and had served in Iraq with the Army National Guard.
Claseman let the town and nearby areas know about his idea by being interviewed at local radio stations and handing out brochures. He then went door-to-door to local businesses. People were receptive.
“When people realized I was serious about doing this, it started to take off,” Claseman said. Soon the donations began to pour in. People in Olivia and surrounding towns chipped in almost $77,000 — about six times his original goal.
Most of the money came from families that donated $250 for each stone paver they wanted to have inscribed with a veteran’s name. “Everyone started thinking, ‘Holy cow — he’s really going to do it,’ ” said Jurgensen, 43.
Claseman drew a rough sketch of what he envisioned for the memorial — a walkway with 21 boot steps, pavers with veterans’ names, flags and a memorial stone with the branches of military service. He combined some of the favorite designs he’d seen at other memorials, then took his sketch to his grandfather Jim Czech, who works as a contractor and architect in the area. Czech weighed in with some ideas.
“As more donations came in, the plans grew, too,” Claseman said. “After we reached $15,000, and more money kept coming, I thought, ‘Hey — I can make this a lot bigger.’ ”
By May, the finalized blueprint was made for a long walkway leading to a stone monument and four granite benches in a 21-foot circle representing the 21 boot steps the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns walks. The memorial also would include flagpoles and Army helmet sculptures in honor of two local men who died in Iraq.
A local crew volunteered to pour the concrete if Claseman would purchase the supplies. Then his dad walked across the wet cement in his Army boots to complete a walk of honor with 21 footprints, Claseman said. A granite company from Richmond, Minn., was hired to create the benches and the stone monument.
Then he and his family joined other members of his Scout troop to put in the landscaping and install 280 inscribed granite pavers along the walkway. It took them three weekends, he said. “There were about 10,000 pounds of rock, so, yeah, it was a lot of work,” Claseman said.
After two years of fundraising, designing and sweat equity, the monument was dedicated this year on Memorial Day. The community was impressed that a teenager had pulled off such a big achievement, said Jon Hawkinson, mayor of Olivia. “Dom’s project proved to us that when creativity meets ambition, wonderful things can happen,” he said.
On Memorial Day, several hundred people turned out to dedicate the monument and marvel at the names of all of the veterans with ties to Olivia.
“A lot of people were quite emotional,” Claseman said. “It was the right time for something like this. Because so many veterans are now deceased, this was a time for people to relive some memories and celebrate their relatives.”
Wendy Jurgensen said it was rewarding to see her son’s community project come together. “He definitely has his head set where he wants it,” said Jurgensen, 34. “He knows what he wants and sticks to it.”
Marjorie Barber, 91, came to remember her uncle — a World War I veteran who died at age 21 — and more than a dozen relatives who served during World War II, including her late husband, Leo Barber.
“We have 17 members of my family on the memorial — almost all are gone, a few are still living,” said Barber, who contributed $250 for her husband’s paver, with other family members chipping in for the rest of the family stones. “We never had a place to remember our veterans before, so what Dominique did is really wonderful and uplifting for our town.”
“To think that a young kid took on this responsibility is really remarkable,” she added. “On the day of the dedication, I gave him a hug and told him that I felt like I was his grandmother. I’m just so proud of him.”
Kim Wertish said her son, James Wertish, was killed in a mortar attack in Iraq while serving with the Army National Guard in 2009 when he was 20. Wertish, 60, contributed money to buy markers for her son and two comrades who were killed in the attack. “Seeing their names there — it’s just really beautiful,” she said. “My husband and I love to travel and have stopped at a lot of different memorials, but this one is extra special.”
“I’m really grateful to [Dominique] for stepping up to spearhead this,” Wertish added.
The memorial in Olivia is the largest project undertaken by a local Eagle Scout in recent memory, said Aaron Russell, district executive for the Northern Star Council, a Scouting organization that serves youths in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
“I was truly amazed as Dom kept blasting through his goals,” Russell said. “It seemed like every week his mom would text me updates, with more and more donations coming in.”
Claseman’s project will be a tough one to follow, but his two brothers, Jayden Claseman, 15, and Ahren Jurgensen, 13, are waiting in the wings to try, he said.
“This is not the end of it — my brothers can add to the memorial for their own Eagle projects,” he said. “They’ll hopefully add more pavers and more statues. There’s a lot more we can do.”
On the Fourth of July, he said, he was thrilled to see his friends and neighbors enjoying the memorial and paying their respects. “Everyone came together for the veterans,” Claseman said. “That’s what this is all about.”