The ground in College Station is alive: It shrinks or swells, spitting out or swallowing up groundwater from the persistent rain, and those expansions and contractions make it shift, breathe. On November 17, 2004, Bob Shemwell walked out of the rain and into Texas A&M’s maroon-draped Rudder Auditorium. A tall, soft-spoken man with brown hair and permanent creases in his forehead where his eyebrows tend to travel, Shemwell crossed the stage and took the podium. He had been invited back to A&M, his alma mater, to give a presentation, “The Story of the Bonfire Memorial,” the night before the dedication ceremony on November 18. Shemwell was the lead architect on the design team that first sketched, then created the memorial honoring the twelve students who died in the 1999 Bonfire collapse.
That night, he was worried. It had been raining for three days straight, and he was thinking about the soil out back in the polo fields. He was thinking about the hundreds of tons of stone he had spent nearly three years imagining and realizing in that space; the 50,000 people who would be walking through it the next day; and the hard rain that had been dripping through the soil, expanding it, making it breathe.
There are things that they teach you in architecture school, and there are things they don’t, as Shemwell puts it. You learn how to compact the sand base, fit de-watering pipes to get to the flood basin so that you can build on tough landscapes like that of College Station. It’s in the textbook. You can make slabs of stone that could crush skyscrapers sit still on a marsh the consistency of Play-Doh. These are things that they do teach you: The things that, to some extent, you can control. Sometimes those are the things that are easier to worry about.
Shemwell looked at the audience and said, “Nobody gives you a handbook that says this is how you be an Aggie, or this is what the words of the fight song are, and this is what the traditions are. It’s an oral tradition. It’s passed down from Aggie to Aggie.” He told them about working with the parents of the kids who had died so tragically, and so tragically young. That is one thing they don’t teach you in architecture school.
He told them about the three elements—Tradition Plaza, History Walk, and Spirit Ring—and his three design objectives. He wanted to commemorate the tragedy, along with Aggie unity and reverence for the Bonfire tradition. And he closed by telling the Aggies filling the auditorium’s 2,500 seats that it was their turn. “Whether you knew it or not, that by hearing the explanation of what this means and how it manifests what’s important about being an Aggie, what it says about the Aggie spirit, what it talks about your comrades who were killed in this tragedy—now it’s your responsibility to take that story and pass it on to those that are going to come behind.”
Applause, and he leaves, back into the fog over A&M. Bob Shemwell could not sleep that night. Imagine if you were General Motors, he says, and you had to build a car, and the very first one that you build has to be perfect. All the pieces have to work out just right the first time you build it. “Buildings are a lot like that,” he says.
Now imagine that that building was not a bank or a jail or a shopping mall, but something that was supposed to make up for twelve young men and women who had been stolen from the Aggie community. Imagine that you loved Texas A&M and were about to offer up the hardest, most complicated work of your professional life and hope and pray, like a little kid, that people would accept it. Imagine that to do so, you stretched a budget in ways most people have to go to prison to do; you haggled granite for the price of concrete from a quarry in China; you tried your best but still offended a mother while trying to figure out the essence of her lost child. How could you not have trouble sleeping? And better yet, what safer place to rest your worries than on the drainage system of a polo field?
The first memorial to the fallen Aggies clinked onto the earth in 1999, when A&M seniors set down their rings at the flagpole, the polo field, Sul Ross’s boot, and anywhere else on campus that felt right. As one professor put it, the Aggie ring is “the most important thing about an Aggie. When you have the Aggie ring, you’re accepted into the brethren.” One of A&M’s traditions—which are many, and taken deathly seriously—is the Ring Dance: Before this event on Senior Weekend, seniors must wear their rings facing themselves; at the Ring Dance, they flip the rings to show their Aggie heritage to the world.
But as lovely of a gesture as it was, the rings were returned. The seniors’ parents weren’t too pleased to discover that the rings they’d spent hundreds of dollars on had been abandoned on campus, and besides, each owner’s name was inscribed inside. It was no feat returning them. One clever senior, however, scratched his name off his ring. It was just as the head yell leader told the campus in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the A&M community disassembled the Bonfire, log by log: “It was the most that we could give and the least that we could do.” The ring was never returned.
Bob Shemwell received his Aggie ring in 1982, when he graduated from A&M with a degree in environmental design. The sixth child of a colonel and World War II nurse, he was born in Virginia, then moved back and forth across the world, dropping brothers and sisters at universities as they went. Eventually his family settled in Copperas Cove, where Shemwell would see a picture of a girl drawing in an A&M brochure. “I said, ‘I can do that.’” He lived on the fourth floor of Crocker Hall and drew cartoons predicting the football team’s next victory for the school paper. In September, he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning on weekends to go on cuts, where students sawed down the trees to be used for Bonfire.
“The Bonfire tradition, although it manifested itself in a big pile of wood that got set on fire, was not ultimately about that,” Shemwell says. “It was really about the fact that you would pile out of your bed early in the morning, go downstairs. You would meet people that lived on the first floor, second floor, that you would not ever meet your entire year, and you would spend all day working together. You would start to build relationships and friendships that would sometimes last your whole life.”
Shemwell works at the San Antonio—based architecture firm Overland Partners. In 2001 he found out from a young colleague and fellow former A&M student, Michael Bray, that the university was soliciting submissions for a competition to design a Bonfire memorial. They talked it over with the partners at Overland, and it was a go. They began holding workshops in their conference room, lunchtime brainstorming sessions that quickly involved forty people. “And a lot of them were people that went to UT,” Shemwell says, smiling. “Interesting.”
Over that table, a sketch began to take shape. They would use materials to signal meanings: granite for the abstract, the tradition, the spirit; bronze for those students who were injured or killed while working on Bonfire. The memorial would begin with Tradition Plaza, where Philo H. DuVal’s “The Last Corps Trip” would be etched onto an enormous stone wall. It would lead to History Walk, beginning with a raised, jutted stone reading “1909.” A stone would commemorate each year Bonfire burned, with the eleven-twelfth slot of each cut out to symbolize the month Bonfire burned. A small amber bulb would light shyly at night, to recall the warmth and the glow of each fiery celebration. Years with casualties—from 1909 to 2004, there were three—would be marked with a bronze plaque bearing the deceased’s name and class year. And perhaps most striking, yet least obvious, would be the thin layer of gravel over the pathway.
“You get that crunch crunch crunch as you walk out, and it changes your approach,” Shemwell says. “The acoustic nature of that sets up a certain sobriety to the place. Because of the crunch and the because of the length, you’ve had a chance to decompress and you’re not thinking about the bus that dropped you off or the car that you walked out of or even the fact that you walked over from campus. It sets up a journey that allows your mind and your emotions to take you someplace else and experience the memorial in a different way.”
Because that’s when you’d arrive at Spirit Ring.
There’s an A&M legend that has kept Aggies on their feet since 1922, and that’s the story of the Twelfth Man. Reportedly, when too many football players got injured in a game against Centre College, a sophomore named E. King Gill was called in from the bleachers to fill in a spot. Although he didn’t play, he stood on the sidelines, ready to go (the Aggies won 22—14). This is A&M, where football is the metaphor by which the rest of life bends; out of this game came the Twelfth Man tradition, in which students vow to step up and fill in for fellow Aggies.
The comparison was inevitable. Twelve Aggies were gone, and as Bob Shemwell and the Overland team leaned over their sketches, they began to envision bronze portals. Each portal would host an intimate encounter with each fallen student. “We said, you know people by what they look like, their face. You know people by their name. You know people by their signature, and at A&M, you know them by their class year,” Shemwell says. The other side of the portal would convey that person’s reputation, a reflection of that life told through family, friends, or even their own words.
The “real memorial” would be a granite circle that marked the spot of the Bonfire’s center pole and the time of the collapse; but to get to it, in its resting place in the center of Shemwell’s turf lawn, you would have to step through one of the portals. In turn, the portals would all be connected, forming an unbroken circle in the exact spot where the fence once circled the Bonfire. It would be a ring, not unlike the ones seniors had set down, the one with the name scratched off.
George Rogers, a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning, was then the department head and co-chair of the committee that selected Shemwell’s design out of nearly two hundred entries. “The main design criteria was this idea of communicating the Aggie spirit,” he says. “I’m not surprised that the winning design came from an Aggie. All of the finalists had an Aggie on them some place—a few, maybe, or a handful, but there was usually an Aggie some place on that team.”
This was all good and well, but many of the things they don’t teach you in architecture school are not captured by rough sketches, either. When Overland won the design competition and was awarded the contract to build the memorial, they found they had only about $3 million to do it with. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is a fraction of the size of Shemwell’s vision, cost nearly $9 million to create. The first bid Overland got back for the bronzes was $6 million.
This did not bode well.
On the other end of things, the university told Overland that it needed to involve the families with the design, which Shemwell was happy to do. His mother, Genevieve, was an Aggie-by-proxy. She didn’t attend A&M, but she embraced the Aggie spirit and traditions. She was a tough woman who had given him maroon-and-white gifts since his acceptance to A&M, raised six children, experienced a war, and was dying of emphysema. But several parents of “the twelve,” as the victims of the 1999 Bonfire are called, weren’t so keen on the university after losing their child. A few families were suing the university. “A&M was gun shy, and so they’d say, ‘Here, you guys take care of it because we almost can’t be involved in that because of this thing over there,’” Shemwell says. It was up to his team to figure out how to interface with the families, what questions to ask, and how to ask them. “Look at some of the consternation going on with different memorial projects, from Flight 93 to Ground Zero: They still haven’t resolved the concerns of the families, and those projects have been going on for years.”
But A&M did not have the luxury of years. By the time Overland’s design was chosen, with Shemwell at the helm, less than eighteen months remained to create a budget, hammer out the portals, design an underground support system, and somehow, in the process, immortalize twelve kids. Not a single place in the United States could cut granite as large as Shemwell was asking for, and nowhere in the world would guarantee it shipped to be ready in time for the dedication. Meanwhile, Rogers’s panel had selected Overland’s design under one condition. Overland had originally designed the memorial as concrete, for cost reasons. The panel said, make it granite, and do it fast.
All the while, Bob Shemwell was figuring out a process. He and his associates rented hotel rooms near clusters of the families and set them up like impromptu offices. He asked the families to bring in photos that captured their children best and copies of their signatures. The latter proved difficult in this e-mail age: “We’d get driver’s licenses or scraps of paper or funny things like that.” And carefully, he’d ask them questions.
Why was the Bonfire tradition an important part of your child’s life? If you had to pick one adjective that captured your child, what would it be? What was important about your child to represent to the world?
Mothers and fathers cried. One woman got angry; Shemwell is not sure what he said to offend her, but then again, how could he not? She folded her arms and stood in the corner, scowling. Not all of the families were still families: There had been a couple divorces, fractures, and Shemwell would find himself talking to “two different halves who couldn’t stand to be in the same room at the same time.”
But slowly, a picture began to emerge of each child. There was Miranda Adams’ smile, and Lucas Kimmel’s beloved, tongue-wagging dog Maverick. There was the plaid shirt Michael Ebanks wore more often than not, and Scott West’s love of hiking. Shemwell began to assemble drafts, editing down the letters and words the families had given him. “We said, ‘Out of everything you gave us, out of the interview questions that we went through, this is what we think you meant to say. This is what you wanted us to hear.’”
Miraculously, a Chinese quarry agreed to donate the granite for the price of concrete and ship it in time for the dedication. Overland found a young, talented artist named Erik Christianson. Perhaps he had a conscience, because he agreed to do the portraits for a low fee. In the end, Overland was able to get the bronzes for $600,000—a tenth of the original bid. Things were looking good. That is, until the granite was quarantined in Houston thanks to SARS. And then the bronzes turned black.
Bronzes are not colored: If you left a raw bronze out in the sun, it would disintegrate pretty quickly. Caustic metals do that. So in a process that turns artists into chemists, a patina—a chemical film that reacts with the face of the bronze—is applied as a protective layer. But patinas are not stains or paints; they’re chemical reactions, sensitive to dust, humidity, temperature. Stephen Daly, a professor of fine arts at the University of Texas, was hired to sift through more than two hundred possible chemical reactions to find the one method that would not only work but also could be spray-painted on and would stand time. “It’s just like old-fashioned photography,” Shemwell says, “where you have to put it in the thing, then you pull it out and get it rinsed off to stop the chemical reaction … and end up with all of them looking the same. You have twelve bronzes, twelve feet tall, with twelve faces to memorialize twelve kids.”
So how on earth had they let this happen, Shemwell and Daly asked themselves, standing over the black bronze that would take six men to paint in time to stop the reaction? They went back through the calculations, checking the numbers, only to find that all the math had been right. It was the water. They’d tested the patina with water from Dripping Springs, which turned out be slightly different than the water in San Antonio. Of all things, the water! They drove back to Dripping Springs, filled up tank cars full of water, and brought it back. “Boy I tell you,” Shemwell says, eyebrows raised as he shakes his head, “there were times when I was very stressed out. We had committed to do these things and deliver them on a certain day and, with literally weeks to go, we were still working through prototypes on that finish.”
Through it all, Shemwell would call his mother, who was bedridden in Copperas Cove. “I would call her and tell her about having this problem, that we had this problem going on, and she was always good about listening to me.” Ten years ago, he and his five siblings had been called back to Copperas Cove; his mother wasn’t doing too well. At 4:30 a.m., they were told to get down to the hospital, to say goodbye. He and his brothers and sisters prayed. Genevieve asked for a priest for the last rites. “Mom was a committed Catholic, Irish-Catholic old-school, and she was like, ‘Where’s the priest?’ And the priest didn’t show up until ten-thirty the next morning,” Shemwell says. By then, his mom was doing better. She would live. “I’m convinced that she just was not going without last rites … and I believe in miracles.”
The stone was released from quarantine and arrived in College Station.
It has been ten years since Bonfire collapsed, crushing twelve families, and five years since Bob Shemwell’s immense Aggie pride overcame a shoestring budget, an international quarantine, and the unholy position of coming between a grieving parent and her fallen child. Since then the Texas A&M Bonfire Memorial has garnered many accolades, including the 2006 design award from the Texas Society of Architects, the 2005 AIA San Antonio Design Award, and a winner of the 2005 MCAA International Excellence in Masonry Awards. Judith Dupré named the memorial one of the best monuments in the country alongside Mount Rushmore and Gettysburg in 2007’s Monuments: America’s History in Art and Memory. And through it all, none of these are the moments Shemwell gets most emotional about. Before the awards, before even the dedication ceremony, he left Rudder Auditorium into a dense fog.
He had already shown Genevieve the memorial: She’d been too weak to walk, so George Rogers had lent them a golf cart so she could get down History Walk. “I didn’t know that she’d be alive to see the dedication,” Shemwell whispers, and she did not end up being able to attend it. “In many ways, I think she was more of an Aggie than I was. She was so into the Aggie spirit.” She would pass away in February of 2006.
After Shemwell left the presentation on “The Story of the Bonfire Memorial,” he stayed awake. He had heard that some students were going to be at the memorial site at 2:42 a.m., the time Bonfire collapsed five years before. Every year since the collapse, students had informally gathered on the site to cry, to think, and to remember. They would recite the poem “We Remember Them,” and from somewhere in the silence, ghostly rounds of “Amazing Grace” would float across the fields.
The rain stopped falling around midnight. Shemwell wanted to get to the site early. He wanted to see the students, see if they would embrace this monolith, this thing that he had worked diligently to bring to them. Through the unworldly thick fog over the polo fields, he walked, slowly, over the gravel that he had so intentionally arranged. And he stopped. “Gosh,” he thought. “It doesn’t seem like there are many people here. Maybe a hundred.” More usually came, didn’t they? What could he do?
As Shemwell stood there, his feet making that crunch crunch on the end of his gravel path, the fog began to recede. And as it cleared, he saw them: thousands and thousands of Aggies, standing in the ring, kneeling in the portals, bowing their heads together in the fields that swelled with rainwater but that were holding up just fine. And Shemwell went to join them.