Conventional wisdom says walls are detrimental to relationships. But the wall that Ronald Smith and Pat Sexton are building is a gift. This wall is an educational tool, a tribute to America’s heroes and a wall of hope. It’s also a “labor of love” for these two expedite truckers.
It has taken $40,000 of their own money, countless hours and “200 percent” effort to create “Spirit of America’s Story — The Wall,” says Smith, president and co-founder of this nonprofit 501 C3 organization.
What makes this different from other veterans’ tribute walls is its breadth, American conflicts from 1775 to the “War on Terror,” and the fact that these are not lists of names but panels depicting war scenes that were hand-painted from researched archived pictures and photos — with the end result so lifelike that Co-founder and Vice President Sexton says the soldiers sometimes look like they’re walking out of the picture and flags are responding to a slight breeze.
Scoff if you must at that account, but onlookers are often moved to tears when viewing these panels.
Smith and Sexton met in 2004, when Smith joined Rolling Thunder, the national nonprofit set up to publicize the prisoner of war/missing in action issues. Sexton had been a member since 2002: Her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. David M. Sexton, died in Vietnam in 1971 but his remains have yet to come home to her and her son.
“‘The Spirit of America’s Story — The Wall’ wants to keep America’s sense of patriotism ignited and a continued respect for those who wear uniforms and bring us together as a country,” say the two in “Our Story,” a statement they send out to prospective donors and interested organizations such as schools. Teachers comment that the images “bring history alive” to students in a way reading a history book or hearing a lecture could never do, says Sexton. “We call it our lesson in freedom,” adds Smith. “They always say a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s why we did it” with the pictures.
Sexton and Smith, a Marine Corp. drill sergeant who spent 13 ½ years in the service, had been involved with Rolling Thunder’s POW/MIA wall for Ohio with 137 names, including Sexton’s husband. They traveled with the wall in Ohio (they’re based in Sandusky) and got many suggestions from the public that there should be a wall that could traverse the entire country.
In 2013 Smith and Sexton left Rolling Thunder with a vision of their own traveling wall to honor the nation’s military, firemen and police, and native Americans, who Smith says if you think about it, are the original “first responders” because the colonists wouldn’t have survived without their help.
They began with only a drawing and a small pamphlet outlining their vision and goals.
When the panels are finished there will be 10 in all, 92 inches high and 100 feet long. Three remain to be done.
Since its inception, Smith and Sexton have raised funds by themselves and the wall has been “funded as we go,” Smith says.
The Ariel Corporation in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, a manufacturer of reciprocating air compressors which “loves their veterans,” gave an initial $30,000, and the Ohio Department of American Veterans gave $5,000, Smith notes.
The two have taken off seven months or more from trucking to work on the Wall. Fortunately, V-3 Transportation, the company for which they carry hazmat and general expedited freight, lets them haul when they can haul, and take off when they need to work on their project.
They started by researching images for months of the various wars and conflicts, taking pictures of the ones that weren’t copyrighted and placing them in order on the living room floor to follow the historical timeline.
Sexton had known Ray Simon for 17 years through his artwork for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the National Football League and other organizations.
“We knew we needed paintings for the high-resolution photographs” it would take to make into the large panels, Sexton says.
Fortunately, Simon, of Ray Simon Art in Columbiana, Ohio, works with graphic artists who were up for the challenge. The pictures were taken to one artist who would move images around to their best advantage and put color to them. Then those would be approved and sent to another graphic artist who would actually bleed some of the color out, outline the images, put them on canvas and send them to Simon to bring life to them with his paint brush. Sexton says it takes Simon a month or longer to do each painting. After he finishes, a high-resolution picture is taken of the images and expanded to the size of a wall panel, then that’s sent to an exhibit company in Ohio that transfers the images onto a stretchable canvas by means of heat, which locks the image onto the fabric.
The fabric costs $1,500, says Sexton, adding it’s so durable that according to its manufacturers it can go in the washing machine, but “I’m not about to put $1,500 in the wash,” she says.
The canvas is then stretched on framing made of aircraft aluminum and voilá, a panel is finally born.
Still to be brought to fruition are the panels depicting 911 and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan: It is definitely a work in progress.
Smith has been in trucking 25-plus years; Sexton drove a school bus for 15 years along with holding down a full-time job. The two began dating in 2006 and in 2008 she started driving for Smith since her bus CDL allowed her to drive a 40-foot expedited truck.
“Honestly there’s no leisure time,” says Sexton of their hectic schedule.
They take the seven completed panels to schools, fairs, flea markets and other community events and are raising funds to have the last three panels completed.
“We want this Wall to be a reminder to all Americans of the price we’ve paid for the liberties we have today,” says Smith.
He says war veterans never fully acclimate to civilian life again once they have experienced the horrors of war. “I never completely acclimated,” he says, “the memories always stay with you. You deal with the negatives through friends,” in this case servicemen in his unit who went through the same things he did. He just met with two other members of his unit recently and will meet with seven more in July for a larger reunion. “That’s a healing process for us,” he explains.
Smith and Sexton are hoping to raise $18,000 by April of this year to finish the Wall and need both donors and corporate sponsors to make it happen.
Smith can be reached at (419) 631-7049 for those wishing to make a contribution.