When a volunteer approached Illinois Valley Community College instructor Tony Sondgeroth about his class creating a steel sculpture for the Surround of Honor in Illini State Park, Sondgeroth said "there was no way I could tell him no."
"We were going to find a way to do this," the instructor said.
His students felt the same way, seeing it as an opportunity to create a real-world project.
"You have to use your head," said Thomas Laible, of Henry, of the experience. "It's not just reading off paper, or a worksheet."
The roughly 700-pound rust steel sculpture of a soldier kneeling toward the boots and gun of a fallen soldier will be a part of the Marseilles memorial paying tribute to all of Illinois' fallen soldiers from Middle East conflicts. It is scheduled to be dedicated at 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8.
Sondgeroth announced he had an extra project if any students wanted to help.
Rebecca Reed, of La Salle, was one of the volunteers, because "the fun part of welding is doing this kind of stuff." Reed participated in the creation of the Heritage Park Vintage Wall Mural in Streator, and remembered the payoff.
"It's a great feeling," said Reed, a St. Bede graduate. "After this is built, it will be here for a long time."
Reed took the lead in improving the design. She wants to go into production welding for a career, but in between classes, she makes welding sculptures, using her artistic talents to make welding more fun. The project even had a short time when the computer system went down, making Reed draw designs "the old-fashioned way."
Sondgeroth sought out Laible to be another volunteer.
"He said he needed my knowledge of the PlasmaCam table, my eye for design," Laible said.
The computer-controlled PlasmaCam table uses a plasma torch to cut and reproduce designs. Creating the soldier sculpture was Laible's first "big project."
Working for the last couple of weeks, Laible edited the design program, made the first cutout, then made the actual sculpture about 30% bigger.
"It's awesome; I didn't think much about it at first," Laible said. "I thought it would be another project with the PlasmaCam, but I'm really excited knowing this is going up as a tribute, a thank you to everyone, the soldiers who gave their life. This will be standing for the next 60 years. It'll be there for awhile, and knowing that feels pretty great, actually."
Sondgeroth said several students from his class would take time before or after class to help with the design.
"After a while it became an entire welding department project," he said. "I think we all firmly believed in what we were creating."
The Surround of Honor where the sculpture will be placed consists of steel panels that hold engraved bricks with the name, branch and hometown for each fallen soldier.
The memorial is an addition to the Illinois Fallen Soldier Tree Memorial that was completed in October 2009. At that time, 250 oak trees were planted on a 2.5-acre meadowland site, along with a 7-ton granite stone with a bronze plaque.
The site is located at the end of Hawk Road, on the far west of the park.
The experience of creating something that will be used in the real world, Sondgeroth said, can't be duplicated.
"They get a much deeper appreciation for what they're creating."
Want to go?
The unveiling of the Illinois Fallen Soldier Surround of Honor is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at the west edge of Illini State Park. Families of fallen soldiers are invited. Other invitees include Gov. JB Pritzker, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, state lawmakers and local officials. The Illinois National Guard and the 144th Army Band will be in attendance.
Attendees are requested to park at the Illinois Valley Cellular parking lot, 200 Riverfront Drive, just north of Illini State Park. A Starved Rock Trolley will take attendees to and from the event.