Spirit of American Citizenship

Gadsden's monument to "The Spirit of American Citizenship."

GADSDEN — The plan, Peter Gregerson says, was for a plaque, or perhaps a small statue, to honor the humanity of Etowah County and this city’s sesquicentennial. He considered nothing improperly grandiose. Meaning mattered more than scale.

“I wanted to have a tribute to the people of this community that were interested in making things better,” he said Wednesday morning. “That was the idea.”

Then, the plan changed.

Gregerson formed a committee of Etowah County heavyweights — business owners, bankers, company executives — who began raising money. More than 4,000 students in Gadsden, Attalla and Etowah County schools chipped in $8,500. The minimalist plaque became a statue, perhaps 10 feet tall. Money kept pouring in. The statue grew bigger, larger, even grandiose. The plan kept changing. 

“People got behind it,” said Tammy Jackson, executive director of Family Success Center of Etowah County. “It really was a rallying moment for Gadsden.”

Or, as Gregerson remembers with a laugh, “It just got out of hand.”

On Aug. 2, 1997, organizers unveiled the Spirit of American Citizenship monument in Gadsden’s Moragne Park, sandwiched between the Coosa River and Riverview Regional Medical Center. It’s 67 feet high, made of steel, granite and frosted glass and intentionally mimics the Washington Monument. Near its base are quotations from John F. Kennedy, George Washington and Jesus. Yes, Jesus.

Tonight, Jackson and the Family Success Center, a one-stop social-service agency, will honor Gregerson and the other monument committee members — Ray Smith, Tom Quinn, Karen Owen, Wayne O'Stean, Bill Peppenhorst and Roger Hawkins — with the Spirit of Citizenship 2019 award, which goes each year to a deserving Etowah County resident.

The center wanted to honor Gregerson, the 91-year-old retired grocery magnate whose idyllic notion became a 6 ½-story monolith overlooking the Coosa, Jackson said, but Gregerson said no. He didn’t build the monument; the committee did.

“In retrospect,” Gregerson said, the committee “was almost divinely guided. I had the right people in this committee that were involved.”

Alabamians love monuments, and this one on Gadsden’s riverfront is remarkably different. It doesn’t celebrate the Confederacy, a war hero, a city’s founder, a war, a city’s military heritage, a boll weevil, a football coach, a politician, a Roman god who doesn’t wear pants or a specific battle. 

Instead, it celebrates an idea.

The seeds of Gregerson’s monument sprouted when he volunteered with the Keep Etowah County Beautiful organization and Gadsden’s efforts to earn an All-America City designation from the National Civic League. In those, he saw civic pride much deeper than he expected, given that he had grown up in Iowa, went to Anniston from Illinois in 1968 and later settled in Gadsden. “I came away from those two experiences thinking that this is truly extraordinary,” he said.

If he needed a final push, it came from the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the well-traveled French diplomat whose 19th-century descriptions of the birth of American democracy still influence historians and political scientists.

OK, a test: Name another monument in Alabama influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on American volunteerism.

Like I said, this monument is different.

“His thoughts lifted me to a new level, completely,” Gregerson said. “He always said that in the history of the earth there had never been something like he saw in America — a volunteerism ideal.”

That’s what he saw around him in Gadsden — a spirit of giving, of helping, of civic assistance. “It was more than to just to thank the people of Etowah County,” Gregerson said. “It was to remind them that they were Americans and they had that opportunity, that that spirit was there and to take advantage of it.”

The monument even features a polite admonition carved into one of its granite panels: “May this be your epitaph: ‘I helped to make this community — and thus America — a little better.’”

Gregerson considers the Spirit of American Citizenship to be an apolitical obelisk, a beacon for anyone who admires America’s stated ideals that today get overshadowed in the nation’s stark political divisiveness. That’s certainly how it was intended. But America is a complicated place, and Alabama is a complicated state, with varying shades and colors and beliefs. Left unsaid in Moragne Park is that American citizenship is a tangled issue because of its uneven application in our nation’s history. Citizenship has come much easier, and more fairly, for some rather than others. 

I asked Gregerson what the meaning of Gadsden’s monument may mean today to other Alabama cities. “Maybe it would be worthwhile for everybody to revisit the idea,” he said. “If we ever lose that spirit, America is doomed. It will be a 250-year blip of democracy.”

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.