New hope for preserving Memorial Stadium?

Mar 21, 2018, 7:25 AM | Updated: 1:30 pm

The long-neglected World War II Memorial Wall at Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium is looking a little less shabby.

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With help from a group of high school students, roughly the same age as many of the 800 Seattle School District World War II casualties listed on the Memorial Wall, the gangly hedge is much shorter, and the trash and other debris cluttering the sacred site is gone.

And now, along with the renewed appearance of the Memorial Wall, there may still be a chance to preserve the entire Memorial Stadium.

What’s officially called “Seattle High School Memorial Stadium” was built in 1947, and the Memorial Wall was dedicated in 1951. It’s been ignored by Seattle School District maintenance crews for years, with fountains and decorative lighting falling into disrepair, and the pedestrian plaza in front becoming a parking lot.

In November, ephemeral Mayor Tim Burgess announced a new partnership with the Seattle School District on a number of initiatives, including replacing Memorial Stadium.

At the press event, held on the football field inside the stadium, the city and school district also formally committed to preserving the Memorial Wall, and incorporating it into the design of the new stadium.

Along came Peter

In the meantime, along came Peter Gockowski.

Peter is a senior at O’Dea High School who will graduate this spring. He also played on the football team as a wide receiver and on special teams and spent many hours practicing and competing at Memorial Stadium over the past four years.

Peter is also a pretty serious Boy Scout. One day after a game last year, his scoutmaster asked him why the facility was called “Memorial Stadium.”

Peter was stumped. So were his O’Dea teammates.

“There’s nothing before games or anything that says why it’s called that,” Gockowski said. “And [my scoutmaster] said there was a World War II wall commemorating the high school veterans that risked their lives for us.”

“And that kinda hit me,” Gockowski said.

More than a Memorial Stadium cleanup

Along with finding the answer to why it’s called “Memorial Stadium,” Peter Gockowski also found himself an Eagle Scout Service Project, which is a requirement for achieving the highest rank in the scouting program.

“Obviously it’s been neglected, since the players don’t know about it and there weren’t many people that knew about it,” Gockowski said. “So I decided to make it so that maybe a little more people would know about it and respect it a little more. So we’re trimming the hedges and cleaning up around the wall to make it look pretty good.”

Finding a missing bomber

This past Saturday, March 17, Peter and his parents Joe and Maureen Gockowski and his younger brother Joseph Gockowski – along with about half a dozen friends – spent much of the day cleaning up the Memorial Wall. The group’s most visible accomplishment was a major trimming of the hedge to make it much easier to stand in front of the memorial and read all the names.

Peter is 17, and his friends are all 17 or 18. The kinship with those local World War II dead who are listed on the wall, even though the war ended more than 70 years ago, is clear to Peter.

“I think it’s kinda hard to know that there were people my age risking their lives so that we could have our freedom,” Gockowski said. “And especially that it’s a sports field because a lot of those kids probably loved playing sports and doing the things that we do normally today.”

To qualify as an Eagle Scout project, there’s more to it than just doing a cleanup for a few hours on a Saturday.

Joe Gockowski is Peter’s father and one of his biggest fans. The elder Gockowski explained that there were a few hoops to jump through along the way.

“This one was actually more challenging than it appears to be on the surface of it as far as scope goes,” Joe Gockowski said, taking a break from hacking away at the hedge. “Because [Peter] had to get approval from the Seattle School District and the City of Seattle to do the work here on the wall, and he also had to get approval to block off these parking spots from the people who own the parking lot.”

Another big fan of Peter’s is Monte Kohler, the legendary longtime football coach and athletic director at O’Dea.

“He’s a hard worker, I mean extremely hard worker,” Coach Kohler said. “He gets everything he can out of his body, you know he’s not the biggest kid. He was a wide receiver and special teams player for us and just did a great job. He’s just a great hardworking kid, fun to have on the team.”

Coach Kohler is also a big fan of Peter’s Eagle Scout project because he’s a big fan of Memorial Stadium.

“To me, it’s everything. I love the place. I love playing there. I love watching games there. It’s a special place,” Coach Kohler said. “A lot of great football players and a lot of great teams have played there over the years. To me, it’s second to none.”

Coach Kohler is not a big fan of the efforts to replace Memorial Stadium.

“I don’t think they can replace the stadium, I’m hoping that’s not the plan,” Coach Kohler said. “I would hate to see anything happen to that stadium or what it stands for or what it means to the city of Seattle.”

No funding in place

Coach Kohler may not have to worry. Replacing the historic stadium is far from a done deal, as there’s no funding in place as yet. The earliest that could be decided is February 2019, when the Seattle School District plans to put a capital levy on the ballot called “Building Excellence V.”

Via email late Tuesday, Seattle School District Kim Schmanke said that there’s no guarantee that the Memorial Stadium project will even be included in the capital levy.

Schmanke wrote:

“The stadium is a potential project for the Building Excellence V capital levy that will be on the February 2019 ballot. It is potential because there is a long list of projects that qualify based on our district’s prioritization process (capacity needs, facility/structural needs, a combination of both). The board will not make a final decision on which of those projects make the ballot until November 2018. I don’t know of any other funding strategies for the stadium outside the [Building Excellence V] process at this point.”

History uncovered by demolition of Rainier Square

November is still eight months away, and a lot can happen between now and when the Seattle School Board makes its final decision on what to include in the capital levy. Given the uncertainty about the funding, it seems as if there may still be an opportunity for the right group of citizens to lead an effort to preserve more than just the Memorial Wall and instead preserve the entire Seattle High School Memorial Stadium.

By this fall when the School Board makes its decision, another football season will be underway and Coach Kohler will be looking to repeat O’Dea State 3A football championship, and Peter Gockowski will be away at college.

And somebody’s probably going to have to trim that hedge again.

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