FRANKFORT — As the architect and his dog approached the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a recent afternoon, a workman stopped and walked over, his face brightening.
“Are you Helm Roberts?” Steve Cunningham asked. “I thought that was you!”
The Frankfort contractor had installed the landscape watering system around the memorial in 1988, and he was making repairs in advance of Veterans Day ceremonies Tuesday that will mark the 20th anniversary of the memorial’s dedication.
Cunningham said he has always been proud of working on the unique memorial, which stands beside the Kentucky Library and Archives on a hill overlooking the Capitol. “It was an honor,” he said. “There are people here all the time from all over the country.”
Roberts, 77, of Lexington, has had a distinguished career as an architect and city planner. He was a key player in the 1960s master plan that removed the railroad tracks from downtown Lexington. He designed homes, retirement villages, more than 2,500 apartments and created master plans for subdivisions and more than 30 military bases.
“This memorial will be my legacy as an architect,” said Roberts, a native of Russell who earned degrees in architecture and planning from Miami University in Ohio. “Nobody remembers master plans or apartments.”
The memorial is a masterpiece of design and mathematics. It honors the 125,000 Kentuckians who served in Vietnam, and it makes an individual tribute each year to the 1,103 who died there. On sunny days, a 14.6-foot-tall gnomon — the column of a sundial — casts a shadow across a vast granite plaza. The shadow’s tip touches each fallen soldier’s name on the anniversary of the day he died.
Harnessing the sun
Roberts learned about celestial navigation in the Navy in the 1950s, when he flew Douglas AD Skyraiders in an attack squadron on the carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later, as an architect, he figured out how to plot the sun’s path while designing a ski resort in Colorado so the slopes would be shaded. The resort was never built, he said, “but it got me into using the sun.”
Roberts made his first big sundial when a city official asked him in 1974 to propose a landscape feature for Woodland Park. Roberts designed it so the shadow tip would touch important dates in Lexington history engraved on a plaza. The idea was rejected as too expensive, and two later proposals for large sundials elsewhere were never built.
But when a competition was held in 1987 to design a Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Roberts revisited his sundial idea. The memorial foundation chose his design unanimously.
“The first thing the executive director asked me after I won the competition was, “Will this thing really work?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ but I had no idea how complex it would be,” Roberts said.
Here’s how it works: The hours on the sundial plaza represent the years Kentuckians died in the Vietnam War, 1962-1975. The arrangement of names shows the pattern of losses as the war ebbed and flowed. The shadow falls on 1968, the year of the most casualties, between noon and 1 p.m. EST each day.
The 1,103 names are carved on 327 four-inch-thick granite slabs that are supported by more than 800 hidden concrete piers. Rainwater seeps through cracks between the slabs or runs down the plaza’s 2-percent slope, so it never pools.
Originally, there were 1,067 names on the memorial, but others were added as they were identified as Kentuckians. As MIAs were confirmed dead, their names were moved out to the plaza. However, there are nine names the sun’s shadow never touches, because of limits on the size of the site and the 89-foot by 71-foot plaza.
During Tuesday’s ceremony, the sun’s shadow will cross a small rectangle. That happens each Nov. 11 at 11:11 a.m., the date and time of the 1918 Armistice that ended World War I. The memorial also includes the famous verses from Ecclesiastes — “A time to be born, a time to die. A time for war, and a time for peace …”
Making the calculations
Roberts figured out the Woodland Park sundial using a slide rule. For this project, he used an IBM AT personal computer — state of the art in 1987, but primitive by today’s standards. He used a $5 shareware program to help plot where each name should be carved in the plaza.
To make the memorial concept work, Roberts had to calculate about 3,000 individual points to plot the curved lines the sun’s shadow would cast throughout the year. For each point, he put in the latitude and longitude and the date and time. The software then told him the sun’s position. Those calculations were put into a database to figure coordinates for a computer design program.
As Roberts tested his work with models, he discovered he had to make some adjustments for leap years and for the penumbra effect, which alters the appearance of shadows as they get longer.
“Everything it took to design this I learned from one teacher in high school — Mary Washington,” he said. She taught trigonometry and several kinds of geometry.
Once the design was completed, Roberts made 327 full-size shop drawings so stoneworkers in Elberton, Ga. — where the 215 tons of granite was quarried, cut and finished — could carve the names in just the right spots.
Over the years, a few slabs have been replaced to correct misspelled names. The memorial represents an investment of more than $1 million, including donated labor and materials from many individuals and companies.
Honoring the service
Several times a year, Roberts takes school groups on tours of the memorial, giving them a lesson in history as well as science.
“I always point out that it wasn’t like a lot of wars, where it starts with a bang and ends at a point,” he said. “It started with one man killed here and then it gets very heavy in the late ’60s and then it doesn’t quit until 1975. It’s a pattern of how not to run a war.”
Roberts estimates he spent two working years of his life on the memorial, which, for him, was a labor of love.
He left the Navy before the Vietnam War started, but some of his fellow pilots served there. On the walls of his home office are photos of his old squadron members and the planes they flew. He points out one man who was shot down in Vietnam and spent time in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison.
“I figure I owe it to the guys on that memorial,” Roberts said. “In a way, they served for me.”
IF YOU GO
An hourlong ceremony honoring Kentucky’s veterans and marking the 20th anniversary of the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the memorial, 300 Coffee Tree Rd., Frankfort. Gov. Steve Beshear will be among the speakers.