KOKOMO, Ind. — Jerry Paul is a man on a mission.
I’m a firm believer that veterans should serve their communities like they served their country,” said Paul, a U.S. Army specialist 5th class in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. The recipient of an air medal for meritorious achievement during aerial flight, he served as crew chief on a medivac helicopter, evacuating wounded soldiers from combat zones for treatment.
Now, his enemy is time.
Pushed by a terminal diagnosis of non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, Paul, A.S. ’92, works feverishly to bring a personal vision to life – to complete funding and construction of a Women’s Legacy Memorial on the northeast corner of the courthouse square in downtown Kokomo.
Everybody on this earth has a legacy. If you do nothing in your life, that’s your legacy. It’s shameful to waste that legacy. I want people to know that Vietnam veterans didn’t come back and do nothing. We came back to continue that legacy of serving, this time in our communities.”
Nobody can accuse Paul of doing nothing – nearly every day, he’s out working on raising the $350,000 to completely fund construction of the memorial. As leader of the Howard County Veterans Memorial Corporation, he and others in the organization already successful raised $300,000 to build a Blue/Gold Star Family Memorial – but that took them six years.
This time, I don’t have six years,” he said. “I have a tight schedule. I have a fatal disease. If you’re going to help me, you have to do it now.”
His goal is to have the monument completed by September 2019.
Paul, 69, woke up one morning with the idea for the women’s memorial fully mapped out in his head, with three statues on graduated pedestals, representing women in the workforce, military, and breaking the glass ceiling.
It’s mind-boggling how little recognition there is for women in Indiana,” he said. “I want women to be proud of who they are. I want women to take their daughters and their young sons to educate them that mom’s not just cooking the meals, mom’s working, and a warrior.”
He has a distinct vision of which women are depicted in the monument, with the statues including Rosie the Riveter, Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell, the first African-American female fighter pilot in Air Force history, and a kneeling modern female soldier gripping a Revolutionary-era musket.
The female soldier represents women’s military history, with the antique musket showing that women have fought for the United States from the beginning. Her kneeling posture and bowed head show reverence, and her prosthetic leg commemorates what women have given in service for their country.
She’s letting you know women have been in every battle, and they’ve sacrificed,” he said. “The leg represents suicide, dismemberment, and death.”
Kimbrell’s statue honors “women of color who have gone through two glass ceilings, of gender and color,” in service to their country.
Rosie’s significance goes beyond her era.
It’s not just about her being the World War II icon of women stepping up and doing what men and society told them they couldn’t do. It’s about every working woman who has ever gotten a job to support her family. She represents all women who work.”
His inspiration was his own mother, Barbara Jean Wagner, whom he admires for her toughness and work ethic.
Wagner grew up during the Great Depression and dropped out of high school to support her parents and siblings with a waitressing job. After two failed marriages, Wagner moved into public housing as a single mother with three sons, including Jerry.
She worked hard to save her money to buy her own house,” said Paul, adding that when they lived in Gateway Gardens (now known as Garden Square Apartments), her pride meant their apartment was spotlessly clean, and neatly painted and maintained. She refused to accept any other assistance and moved her family to a home she saved for and purchased on North Apperson Way as soon as she could. It took 11 long years.
After high school, Paul worked at Continental Steel until being drafted into the Army, and then returned to the factory after serving.
When the factory closed in 1986, it left Paul at a crossroads in his life, and hesitantly, he decided college was the next step he had to take to care for his family – even though he admits the idea intimidated him. “It had to be a desperation thing for me to go,” he said. “I was a middle-aged guy with a high school education, a baby at home, and my wife was a stay-at-home mom. Before, why would I have quit a good job?”
He started with a couple of classes, and when he was successful, he dove into student life. He earned an associate degree in criminal justice at IU Kokomo, then completed a bachelor’s at IUPUI.
Paul also served as a peer counselor, a case law tutor, and on the student body Supreme Court as chief justice, along with receiving the outstanding student of the year award in his program.
IU Kokomo gave me the confidence more than anything else,” he said. “College teaches you how to think. When I became a union steward at Chrysler, my classes helped me because I knew how to research the information I needed to help the people I represented.”
His then-wife also went to IU Kokomo for her teaching degree, and it was while she was student teaching at Western School Corp. that he discovered how, as a veteran, he could continue to serve.
She asked him to speak to students about his experience in Vietnam, and he reluctantly agreed.
I realized in that classroom of fifth graders that I really have something I can give back, and this might be good for me.”
He designed the Blue/Gold Star Family Memorial, which is at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Darrough Chapel Veterans Memorial Park, the monument at Western High School, and then the women’s monument, which he calls his most meaningful work. Paul recently led a group of volunteers who restored the tank at Foster Park, too.
The women’s monument and the family monument also are his legacy, he said, noting that he wants his ashes scattered behind the family monument. Not all of his work has his name on it, but both of these have “Jerry B. Paul. Vietnam veteran,” in a small inscription.
When my grandchildren come back, my children can tell them, ‘This is what your grandpa did with his legacy,’” he said. “I went from barely getting through high school, to working in a factory, to getting a college degree, to this. I’d like to think I’m leaving something behind.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.