ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

The original 9/11 memorial

The 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero opened to the public in September 2011. Bob Hart’s has been bringing visitors to tears since the spring of 2002.

Elie Wiesel quote and Harold Rittenberry sculpture on the 9/11 Memorial Trail. Photo by Bob Hart.

Eight hundred and forty-three miles south of lower Manhattan, where fanatical Islamists crashed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center 21 years ago today, there’s a walking trail that will break your heart.

It was the first 9/11 memorial to be built, completed just months after the attack.

The winding pathway that Bob Hart and some of his friends cut through his land near Athens, Georgia, curves nearly 300 yards through hardwoods, pines and shrubs.

Walking the trail, a visitor sees Hart’s stark, evocative folk-art installations representing each of the 9/11 crash sites. Beautiful paintings by his friend and fellow artist Mary Padgelek and an arresting, wrought-iron sculpture by another Athens artist, Harold Rittenberry, suggest transcendent spirits and a world undeterred from the pursuit of progress and peace.

White letters hand-painted on a green, wooden box quote Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “Memory may be our most powerful weapon against fanaticism.”

And then there are the signposts. At regular intervals along the trail there are tall, unpainted posts, each topped with a cluster of wooden slats, each slat bearing the name of a victim of the terrorist attacks.

There are nearly 3,000 slats.

Each and every 9/11 victim’s name is hand-lettered on a signpost. Photo by Bob Hart.

Standing among the signposts, turning and turning to see one and then another and another, a visitor is overwhelmed anew by the magnitude of the atrocity that was wrought on that bright, crisp fall morning two decades ago.

Not just the number of names but their ethnic variety — Italian, Jewish, Irish, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, African, Asian — remind you of how many nations the attacks touched.

Bob Hart was at work in his office on the campus of the University of Georgia when the 9/11 horrors began. Now retired, he was then director of information technology at UGA’s College of Education. Folk art was his hobby.

He had no personal connection to any of the victims, but like almost all of us, he was deeply affected as he watched the nightmare unfold on live television. He said the urge to respond positively became undeniable when he and his wife, Nancy, took a previously booked trip to New York City that October.

“We saw a New York City like we had never seen before,” he told me. “It was so quiet and subdued. Everywhere we went, especially by fire stations, there were flowers. The firemen were out talking to everybody. On the flight home, I just decide I had to do something. I said to Nancy, “Is it okay if I try to do a memorial on our property?” She said let’s go ahead and do it.”

Hart’s stark installations represent each of the 9/11 attack sites. Photo by Bob Hart

By early November, Hart was making prototypes of the various installations he wanted to include. He hoped to have the memorial trail completed by the first anniversary. It was done by spring.

“A lot of people found out what I was doing and wanted to help,” he said. “We had some work days out here. People helped me letter the names on the poles and set them in the ground.”

Other than write-ups in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a few small-town newspapers, Hart’s memorial trail hasn’t gotten much publicity. Yet thousands of people have come to walk the pathway, read the names, and grieve. They include relatives of 9/11 casualties and folks from as far away as Alaska who heard about the trail by word of mouth.

Hart from the start was careful not to make the project about himself. He didn’t even have a visitor log the first five years.

“Nancy kept telling me I needed to do that,” he said. “And I said, ‘Nance, if I do that, it almost looks like I’m sort of begging for compliments.’ She said she didn’t think so, that people would want to say something. So I put a book out . . .and, as always, she was right. Some people put down heartfelt thanks. Some people made comments about how they were affected or who they knew. I gone through three books out there now.”

On September 11, 2002, on the first anniversary of the attacks, some 300 people, including Athens’ mayor and a state legislator, drove out to the Harts’ property east of town to pay respects, hear prayers and sing of the national anthem.

On the 10th anniversary, in 2011, the remembrance included having the visitors each read the names on a signpost aloud — simultaneously. The effect was a ghostly murmur, a cloud of sound, that enveloped the trail in tranquility. I know. I was among the readers.

Since 2011, the gatherings have been more modest. But anyone who wants to visit the site, walk the trail, and reflect is welcome. The memorial never closes.

The signposts illustrate the magnitude of the loss like no list on paper or marble can. Photo by Bob Hart

More information about the trail and directions can be found on Bob Hart’s website: http://www.bobhartart.com

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Noel Holston

Noel Holston

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Writer, photographer, horticulturist, international music icon. Lives in the South. Email Noel at nholstonga@gmail.com