LAKE PARK, Iowa | Artist Ray “Bubba” Sorenson II made the second of his five Veterans Day weekend stops on Saturday for a dedication of the Dickinson County Freedom Rock/Veterans Memorial in Lake Park, Iowa.
Fifteen years ago, Sorenson said, he began painting a 60- to 90-ton boulder north of his hometown in Greenfield, Iowa. Little did he know the project would one day expand to all corners of Iowa, including this one in Dickinson County.
“I just wanted to remind people that Memorial Day isn’t just a three-day holiday weekend,” said Sorenson, an artist. “I also wanted people to think about veterans and the sacrifices they made for us.”
Sorenson visited Lake Park during a late-summer stretch to paint the Dickson County Freedom Rock site, an effort he called the most ambitious and involved of any of the 13 county sites he’s completed since starting his Freedom Rock Tour, an effort that will one day see Freedom Rock projects in Iowa’s 99 counties.
“When Jim Kessler told me what he envisioned here at Lake Park, I thought, ‘Wow!’
“I didn’t know you could pull it off,” Sorenson added.
Kessler, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant during the Vietnam War, helped preside over a ceremony Saturday that showed he, indeed, did pull it off. Family members pulled off pieces of canvas that covered the main Freedom Rock boulder, a rock on which Sorenson painted five heroic war figures from Dickinson County. In addition, he painted rocks for each of the five military branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard) and added a U.S. flag painting in the middle of the project site east of the Lake Park Community Center.
Nearly 300 people were on hand to dedicate the $85,000 project.
“This is the most elaborate of any county’s Freedom Rock site so far,” said Sorenson.
“I am honored to stand here today and look out at you people who took up the cause,” said Kessler, thanking the veterans, their families and community backers who pitched in to raise funds and contribute ideas for the site. “From our start back on February 28 until today, this has been a labor of love.”
The north face of the Freedom Rock centerpiece features late Dickinson County veterans Rachel Wunder, a surgical nurse from Lake Park who served in World War II; Milton Simpson of Terril, who was killed in action in Germany in 1944; Ed Gath, a soldier from tiny Montgomery, Iowa, who was killed in action in North Korea in 1951; Wilber “Bill” Ahart, a Spirit Lake, Iowa, resident who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II; and Spirit Laker Lawrence Lambert, who survived for 27 months as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
After uncovering the rock, family members posed for photos while some saluted. Other members of the community searched for pavers listing the names of themselves or their loved ones.
As a U.S. flag towered 35 feet over the new Freedom Rock site, representatives from American Legion branches throughout Dickinson County fired a 21-gun salute, giving way to the playing of taps as the ceremony closed.
Brothers Ernest and Lawrence Gath, both of Spirit Lake, stepped forward with family to get a closer look at Sorenson’s work. They examined the depiction of their brother, Ed Gath, the soldier killed near Senchon, North Korea, on Oct. 5, 1951. Ed, it was noted, wrote home three times per week while serving overseas. His last letter was dated Oct. 4, 1951, the day before he died. He was 23 and a farmer-to-be.
Ernest Gath, himself a veteran, served in Korea and Japan. Looking at the painting of his brother, he nodded and said, “I think this is wonderful.”