There’s a poignant display swaying over Alumni Park. It was assembled by a horde of student volunteers who spent their Wednesday night planted on the marshy lawn, slinging 2,977 American flags onto 10-foot poles.
The display symbolizes each life lost during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, though. At a glance, it resembles one unified wave of red, white and blue.
The aptly named “Wave of Flags” display is one of several commemorative events taking place on the Pepperdine campus today. The display, located near the intersection of Malibu Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway, will stand until Sept. 18.
The president of College Republicans, senior Ryan Sawtelle, organized the event. A team of volunteers, which included members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, College Republicans and a Step Forward Day group, began the installation on Sept. 1. To install the display, volunteers hammered and drilled 4-foot rebar into the sloping green lawn, fixed poles atop the rebar and then adorned them with 3 by 5-foot flags.
According to Sawtelle, College Republicans received more than $30,000 in donations to cover their costs for the event from the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, the Pat Boone Foundation and individual contributor Norma Zindahl, who frequently donates to the University. Gecko Promotions sold the flags at whole price and Home Depot sold the bars at a discount. Also, Hilti, a tool company, lent generators and hammers to the cause.
This is not Sawtelle’s first attempt to commemorate Sept. 11 casualties in a grassy arena. Last year, he and senior Chris Garcia, the vice president of College Republicans, planted 2,977 miniature American flags in the grass near the Graziadio Executive Center.
Sawtelle said he devised the current “Wave of Flags” display a year-and-a-half ago. He was inspired by a Sept. 11 tribute that had been organized by a Kiwanis Club in Marietta, Ga. He paired the inspiration with a troubling sense of widespread negligence.
“I felt like people were starting to forget about Sept. 11,” Sawtelle said. “I understand the want or need for some to forget. But, I wanted to provide a standing memorial that will provide a sense of pride — an opportunity to mourn and an opportunity to heal.”
Sawtelle said he assembled a 12-page packet that detailed the project and disbursed copies to members from several University departments, seeking their approval.
He met with 50 different people, including people in Facilities Management and Planning, the Department of Public Safety, Public Relations and Risk Management, according Sawtelle.
Various departments lent their input. For example, Sawtelle said the management team required that volunteers top the sharp rebar with soft caps as a safety precaution.
The “Wave of Flags” event coincides with a rocky union between members of College Republicans and the University. Members of College Republicans have expressed their irritation with the University’s refusal to co-sponsor the event, while some University leaders have expressed their disappointment in the group’s organizational tactics.
The University’s refusal to co-sponsor the event with College Republicans triggered heated criticism.
“They basically ordered us to remove our name, [College Republicans], from the event, even though we’ve made it clear that this is a non-partisan event,” Sawtelle said.
Garcia echoed this stance.
“Just because it was organized by College Republicans does not mean that the University is a Republican university,” he said.
Jerry Derloshon, director of Public Relations for the University, said the University needs to be careful not to favor any one group on campus, particularly political organizations in an election year.
“Pepperdine cannot be a political advocate for a party, because the University needs to be sensitive about advocacy toward any one group and to be inclusive of other groups that want to participate in a commemorative event like this,” Derloshon said. “The University must be sensitive to what might be interpreted by others.”
Marc Davis, dean of Student Affairs, explained that the Federal Elections Campaign Act prohibits the University from promoting a political party.
“The University did not want to give the impression that we are favoring one political party by co-sponsoring this event with the College Republicans,” he said in an e-mail. “We also believed that a broader base of students would be interested in supporting the event, so we asked Ryan and Chris to partner with the University as student volunteer leaders rather than as College Republicans.”
College Republicans leaders have suggested that the University is downplaying College Republican sponsorship. President Andrew K. Benton disagrees and said he has not appreciated the “half-truths” that have been circulated regarding the University’s involvement in the event.
“I must say there is really something strange going on in terms of disinformation,” Benton wrote in an e-mail.
Davis also expressed his disappointment with the event’s organization.
“Frankly, Ryan [Sawtelle] and I have hit heads over the way he has organized this event and his disrespect to President Benton and the University,” Davis added.
“Wave of Flags” is one of three commemorative events organized by the College Republicans this week: John Ashcroft will speak in Smothers Theater this evening, and a “Ride to the Flags” event is slated for Saturday.
In the end, the unifying power of memorial may soothe frustration on both sides.
“We have set aside our differences to work toward a greater cause,” said Davis, who volunteered to hammer earlier this week. “Pounding rebar side-by-side was therapeutic, and I’ve grown to appreciate how much we can accomplish when we work together.”
Young Democrats President Emerson Siegele said he believes that the event promotes unity among the Pepperdine community.
“I’ve seen a lot of Pepperdine students involved in recognizing the victims of Sept. 11 — and that kind of pride and respect crosses party lines,” Siegele said. “There are great patriots and political passion on both sides, Democratic and Republican, and, while there’s generally debate between them, there’s great solidarity on issues like this. ‘Wave of Flags’ is an admirable goal.”