Veteran’s Day Celebration on November 11 Concludes the Charles George Memorial Project | Cherokee, NC

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Veteran’s Day Celebration on November 11 Concludes the Charles George Memorial Project

Members of the Charles George Memorial Project (Photo by Warren DuPree)

Private First Class Charles George, a Cherokee native, saved the lives of five fellow soldiers during the Korean War. His courageous sacrifice will endure throughout the ages. And so will the remarkable story of the Charles George Memorial Project, which began in June 2015 and will conclude with the unveiling of a bronze bust at the Veterans Celebration in Cherokee, NC, on November 11, 2017.

The Courageous Warrior Named Charles George

Charles George, a member of the Bird Clan of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, was born on August 23,1932. His name “Tsali” (synonymous with “self-sacrifice” in Cherokee culture) translates into English as Charlie or Charles. He grew up alongside the Oconaluftee River with his family in the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.

At age 18, he enlisted in the United States Army. After nightfall on November 29, 1952, 20-year-old George went above and beyond the call of duty when he silently threw himself on a grenade, absorbing the full impact with his body, in an effort to save his comrades. Fellow soldiers Armando Ruiz and Marion Santo rushed him to aid, but to no avail. Mortally wounded, George passed away early the next morning.

During a Veterans Day ceremony at the Cherokee Indian Fair Grounds in 2012, three of George’s medals (a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Good Conduct Medal) were returned to the George family by two young boys in New York who found them (More on that story here.) These medals were given to the American Legion Steve Youngdeer Post 143 and Warren DuPree donated them to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. These medals joined George’s Medal of Honor and second Purple Heart, which the George family donated to the Museum years before.

The Legacy Lives On

Photo by Joyce CooperGeorge is remembered throughout Cherokee and his story is taught in Cherokee schools. You’ll notice his namesake in many places, from the Cherokee High School Gymnasium to a bridge in Cherokee. 

Today, you will find two life-sized bronze statues of Charles George—one in the newly renovated Veterans Park in Cherokee (pictured left, photo by Joyce Cooper), and the other at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, between the VA Medical Center and the Community Living Center (a nursing home for veterans in need). The VA MC serves 37,000 veterans in Western North Carolina.

How these bronze statues came to be and why November 11 will mark an important milestone makes for an awe-inspiring story. 

A Master Bronze Sculptor’s Desire to Give Back

Each statue was accompanied by a plaque written in English and Cherokee. (Photo by Joyce Cooper)

The Charles George Memorial Project began when Warren DuPree received a phone call in June 2015 from John Davidson, Patient Experience Officer for the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, NC. “He had a proposal to present to the Veteran community of the EBCI on a project concerning a bronze sculpture of Charles George,” recalls Warren. Shortly after, the two met and John explained that there was a cancer patient, a US Navy veteran, at the VA’s treatment center who wanted to do something to give back for the outstanding treatment he was receiving for his stage 4 bone cancer. The man’s name was James Killian Spratt. It turned out that James wanted to create at least two bronze sculptures of Charles George because not much existed to share with the world who Charles George was and why he was such an important person in Cherokee history.

Warren serves as committee chair for the project. He is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, serving more than 35 years for both active duty and reserve duty in the US Navy, US Coast Guard Reserve, and the US Army reserve. He is a two-war veteran, serving in 1968 and ’69 in the republic of Vietnam, and in 1990 and ’91 in Desert Shield, Desert Storm. He was joined by John and James to go before the Tribal Council to share this proposal (it was passed). Warren meticulously captured every phase of the project in a written document based on his recordings.

In the months that followed, many people and organizations in the community became directly involved with the project, including the American Legion Steve Youngdeer Post 143 that sponsored the project and gave it official backing. The fundraising goal, set at $50,000, would cover the fee for materials. James took no artist fee as he wanted to donate all of the hours he and his apprentice, Kirsten Cloutier, put into the project. By June 2016, the committee raised a total of $51,138, surpassing the goal!

The committee was well-rounded and included not only veterans—both enrolled and non-enrolled—but also individuals and governing parties. “Every interaction with our committee and with our community… was in a very positive way. I have never heard the first negative comment about this project and this goes all the way back to the very beginning,” says Warren.

The Statues’ Installations

James’ friend John Ward (pictured here) has a small foundry in Canton, Georgia. “John Ward had cast bronzes for quite a few different projects of James. So they knew each other, trusted each other,” says Warren.

Warren and James spent many hours researching and sharing information on what uniforms would be time appropriate and what the actual medals looked like. “Whenever James needed anything that pertained to the uniform—any advice, any counsel, on how they were to be positioned on the uniform, where you place them in a specific way, down to the measurement, down to an eighth of an inch...—we shared that with him so that everything would be as accurate as possible. It worked out very, very well,” says Warren

Warren and other members of the committee paid visits to James’ studio every two or three weeks for months. “We were developing, even from the very beginning, a very close relationship...The more I interacted with James, the more I was impressed with him. Very thoughtful, very nice, warm human being,” says Warren. James told Warren, “Whenever I feel like I’m having a really bad day, I would think of Charles and my pain would pale in comparison with what Charles endured.”

The last week of May 2016, James completed the clay model and it was set for transportation to the foundry. By September, the first bronze sculpture was ready for its installation at the VA.

The VA scheduled their unveiling for September 24, 2016. Before Warren was scheduled to speak, the received news of James’ passing. “It was a heartrending moment and one cannot imagine how emotional it was…. He had lived long enough to make this day happen and we were very thankful that he was able to be us—maybe not in body, but in spirit,” says Warren.

The second bronze statue was unveiled on November 11, 2016, at the Veterans Memorial Park. More than 400 guests were in attendance. A special presentation ceremony took place at the Fair Grounds’ Exhibit Hall. (Photos above by Warren DuPree.)

The Bust’s Unveiling This Month

Cherokee High School ROTC Participants. (Photo by Commander Lew Harding)

The conclusion of this Project is the unveiling of a bronze bust of PFC Charles George (from the Ward Foundry in Georgia) that will be presented to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian this month, to be on display with his medals. On Saturday, November 11, 2017, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Veterans Day Celebration will honor all the men and women who have served and are still serving in the armed forces for our country. At noon, after the ceremony, a meal will be served for all in attendance.

“We succeeded only because we had such an outstanding committee to bring it all together,” says Warren about the project. “Everyone working together was the key.”

Warren adds, “An event such as this will never occur again, not in my lifetime. I am deeply honored and very privileged to have been a part of this Charles George Memorial Project…”

WHAT: Veterans Day Celebration, free and open to the public

WHERE: American Legion Steve Youngdeer Post 143, 1526 Acquoni Road in Cherokee, NC

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Special thanks to Warren DuPree for his help with this piece.

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