Editor’s Note: On the 15th anniversary of the tragic collapse of the Texas Aggie Bonfire that killed 12 students and injured 27 others in College Station, Joseph Pawlik, a former Texas A&M University student and Rivard Report intern, contributed this story about the Bonfire Memorial, designed by Overland Partners and dedicated five years after the collapse.
The Texas A&M University Bonfire Memorial stands in remembrance of 12 fallen and 27 injured Aggies who tirelessly worked into the morning of Nov. 18, 1999, until every log they raised high into the sky fell to the ground at 2:42 a.m. The Bonfire collapse was the greatest tragedy in school history.
Since 1909, a bonfire of some sort was built every year to symbolize every Aggie’s undying flame of love for their school. Beginning in 1921, the Bonfire would be part of a pre-game rally held the night before the Aggies’ football game against University of Texas on Thanksgiving Day. After the location of Bonfire had bounced around campus a few times, it found its home on the Polo Field at the northeastern corner of the College Station campus. Today, there sits a beautifully designed and manicured memorial standing in place of what was to be Texas A&M’s 90th recorded Bonfire Ceremony held on campus.
An earthen berm, taller than the 16-foot portals and dotted with trees, wraps around the Spirit Ring from the entrance to the lower east side of the ring, protecting the site from noise and sight of neighboring roads and parking lots. I stood on this same hill on a cold Nov. 2, 2009 morning as I and hundreds of other Aggies gathered in candlelight to celebrate the lives of the fallen and pay tribute to a tradition no longer practiced on campus. I was a freshman that year at A&M and this was my first time at the memorial, dedicated five years previously on Nov. 18, 2004.
It was not, however, my first time on the Polo Field. I was flooded with memories of a field full of enormous, scattered logs and hand-crafted memorials of all kinds lining an orange safety fence. The Polo Field I saw as an 8-year-old while in College Station with my family to visit my sister was forever changed that day. My sister was a sophomore at the time and she had volunteered with Bonfire activities before. Thankfully, she was not there the night of the collapse. In the days after, she recalled a student body in a daze and disbelief. Thousands of students gathered in Reed Arena for a memorial service the day of the collapse while news helicopters soared above for days.
Chosen out of 194 entries submitted in 2001, Overland Partners of San Antonio presented a memorial concept that highlighted nearly everything quintessential about one of A&M’s most favored traditions and the Aggie Spirit, which only grew greater during this time of tragedy. Upon arrival at the site, every visitor is immediately greeted with the quote: “There’s a spirit can ne’er be told…”
Overland Partners automatically had the Aggie heart and soul in mind as the all-Aggie design team – informed by charrettes that included all Overland designers – started with the quote from the “Spirit of Aggieland,” Marvin Mimms, class of ’26, inscribed in an enormous stone slab, the Spirit Wall, at the entryway of the Bonfire Memorial.
Past the Spirit Wall, enter Traditions Plaza and the grandeur of “The Last Corps Trip” poem engraved across five large granite blocks. The poem was written by Phil H. DuVal, Jr., class of ’51. DuVal was inspired by the lament of a professor as DuVal’s classmates left several days early to travel to away games because the Aggie football team was doing well in the 1950 season.
“If you guys were going on a one-way trip to hell, you’d leave a week early,” his professor said.
DuVal’s poem is also known as “Judgement Day in Aggieland.” The rest is history as these good words would slowly be spread around campus and eventually be read before Bonfire by Head Yell Leader Red Duke.
In 1999, “The Last Corps Trip” would not be read before Bonfire for the second time in Bonfire’s 91 year history. At noon on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, all Bonfire activity froze in the wake of the news that Pres. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. After the announcement, A&M’s Bonfire would be cancelled as would many other events across the country. The Bonfire was then deconstructed, log by log, in memory of our fallen president.
“It’s the most we have, it’s the least we can give,” said Texas A&M Head Yell Leader Mike Marlowe.
As visitors walk away from “The Last Corps Trip” and Traditions Plaza, the crushed black rock pathway leads on to History Walk. Along the walkway leading to the site of the 1999 Bonfire collapse lie markers commemorating each year it burned, ceased to burn, and times in which a Bonfire volunteer casualty occurred before the collapse – 1955, 1982, and 1996. Along this pathway are 89 granite stones lined to the right of the path leading to The Spirit Ring. In each, amber lights lay 11/12ths of the way down in the slabs, each burning for its respective year in which Bonfire was lit. Every light turns on each night at “dark 30,” the same time the Bonfire was lit. A large unlit black stone lies in place of what would have been the 90th granite slab, marking the year in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the first year in which Bonfire did not burn and “Last Corps Trip” not read.
At the end of the granite-lined walkway stands the Stonehenge of Aggieland. It’s doesn’t mimic the Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England on accident. Just as can be imagined that Stonehenge took an incredible amount of hard work, back breaking strength, and determination to build, the Aggie Bonfire itself took months of preparation, hard work, determination, teamwork, and many months to build accordingly to its 55-foot tall and 45-foot wide “wedding cake” design, standards for which were set by the university in 1970.
Texas A&M’s Bonfire Memorial stands for lives of fallen and injured, keepers of the Spirit of Aggieland, as does Stonehenge stand for revered persons or person-like figures. A ring of granite blocks, 170-foot in diameter, forms what was the size of the original perimeter fence put up after the collapse. On top of the 27 blank, granite blocks lining Spirit Ring, lay 27 bronze slats representing the injured survivors of the 1999 collapse. Dotting the Spirit Ring are twelve 16-foot stone portals that commemorate the lives of Lucas John Kimmel ’03, Bryan Alan McCain ’02, Christopher D. Breen ’96, Jeremy Richard Frampton ’99, Chad Anthony Powell ’03, Jeremy Don Self ’01, Michael Stephen Ebanks ’03, Jamie Lynn Hand ’03, Timothy Doran Kerlee, Jr. ’03, Christopher Lee Heard ’03, Miranda Denise Adams ’02, and Nathan Scott West ’02.
Each stone portal is strategically placed at the approximate direction of each fallen Aggies’ hometown from the center pole, the singular pole where Bonfire build would begin and where the stack presses its weight. Each portal creates its rectangular shape with mere gravity, the heavy slabs lack the need of mortar to hold them in place. In each stone portal lies another 12-foot bronze portal. These contain the fallen student’s name, hand written signature, class year, hand carved effigy of the students face along with a few items in the background of significance to each person, and comments on the opposite wall from family and friends. Look down and the student’s hometown can be found on the stone, an arrow pointing to it.
Every memento told in words or portrayed in picture, tell an emotional story of each student’s selflessness, work ethic, love of their school, and of lives being lived to the fullest. In the direct center of the Spirit Ring lies a simple marker for the Bonfire’s center pole. It simply declares the date and time of Bonfire’s collapse: 11.18.1999, 2:42 a.m.
Upon leaving the Spirit Ring up the History Walk, visitors are faced with a beautiful oak tree. Simple it seems, but this oak was uprooted from one of the 12 fallen Aggies’ hometown, and planted on Feb. 28, 2004 as the largest tree uprooted and replanted in the State of Texas.
Great symbolism takes play in many parts of Bonfire Memorial. The black rocks in every pathway prevents water from pooling after torrential downpours and provides just enough soft noise to fill the void of silence – often preventing chatter amongst visitors. Every large granite stone at the site was imported from a mine in Southeast China and special machinery was needed to cut the volume of granite necessary for the project. No mine in the U.S. was capable of handling this order. The Spirit Wall at the entrance of the memorial is the largest piece of cut granite in the U.S. Behind it, quietly marks the year completed, 2004, and the names of the project partners, Overland Partners Architects, Madison Construction, L.P., and sculptor Erik Christianson.
Aggies left their studies to fight in support of U.S. allies in World War II, many would never return home. These students and those that fell behind them are memorialized in the Texas A&M Memorial Student Center (MSC). Aggies and visitors are encouraged to take time to stop at the MSC and the Bonfire Memorial.
When reading the names of the men and women lost at war, answer “here” for our fallen comrade. As you step into the portals of the 12 fallen Aggies of Bonfire, step into a capsule of a fallen comrade’s life that was taken far too soon, answer “here.”
“(Bonfire Memorial) requires visitors to invest themselves in it completely,” said Robert Shemwell, lead architect of the design team responsible for the memorial. Shemwell reiterates the immerse nature of the Bonfire Memorial during a program, “The Story of the Bonfire Memorial,” held the night before the memorial’s Nov. 18, 2004 dedication:
This is one of the very unique things about this memorial — it requires active participation. You inhabit it. It doesn’t become complete without you there.
As long as the Aggie Bonfire Memorial stands to the test of time, so too will the stories and history it wishes to tell. The fire of the Aggie Spirit continues to flame with each who visit this special place.
*Featured/top photo: The Spirit Ring at the Texas A&M University Bonfire Memorial. Photo by Alex Richter.