In the summer of 2021, at 91, Louis “Louie” Ferris was trim and fit, with a palpable energy that belied his stage 4 cancer diagnosis. “I wake up in the morning and … get out of the way!” he said when interviewed, “Before most people get up I’ve already put in a full day!”
A first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Lebanon, Louie grew up in La Crosse. While he was still in high school he joined the Wisconsin 32nd Red ARROW Division of the National Guard. He then served for eight years as a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, during which he served in the Korean War. Later, he took on the role of Commander of VFW Post 1530 in La Crosse.
Korean War Memorial
In 2015, Louie was serving as the President of the Korean War Veterans Association Chapter 275 in the La Crosse area. “I wanted to do something before we all die off,” he said. He and other members of the association developed a plan to have a plaque crafted honoring the “Forgotten War.” The City of La Crosse Parks and Recreation Department suggested it be displayed in Veterans Freedom Park on Clinton Street in North La Crosse. Planning and fundraising commenced, with nearly 200 donors from across the country supporting the initiative.
After a year of planning and fundraising, the new memorial was finally in place. Fundraising had exceeded expectations, allowing the memorial to include much more than a simple plaque.
A white archway with the words “Freedom is Not Free” emblazoned across the top in gold lettering opens to a brick walkway. A large monument rests further along the path, featuring an outline of both North and South Korea. It reads: “Korean War Veterans Memorial, Forgotten No More.” The monument also features an element of the Korean War Veterans flag, along with the dates the war began and ended (6-25-1950 through 7-27-1953), the number of casualties (36,576), the number wounded (103,284), and the number of POWs returned to the United States (4,418). A mirror embedded in the memorial encourages visitors to reflect on their freedom.
A dedication ceremony was held on July 27, 2016, the 63rd anniversary of the armistice to end the war.
World War I Memorial
The success of the first memorial inspired Louie to keep going. The next memorial would honor World War I veterans—Louie’s father and uncle both served in World War I. Fundraising proved challenging as the WWI veterans were all deceased. “It was very, very difficult,” Louie says. But thanks to a sizable donation from Northside River Bank in La Crosse, the memorial became possible. It was dedicated on October 25, 2017.
This memorial features a brick pathway, flanked by two brick pillars. Etched atop one pillar are the words: “We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and on the streets. We shall never surrender!” Atop the other, the words: “We are the Dead. Short days ago, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved; and now we lie In Flanders fields.” At the center of the memorial stands a statue of a World War I soldier, complete with trench boots and a haversack. Additional pillars with inscriptions encircle the statue, and a low curved brick wall provides seating.
U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps
Louie switched gears for the third memorial. Having visited memorials throughout Wisconsin, he noticed they were all male-oriented. Wanting to provide something to inspire little girls, Louie decided the third memorial would feature the U.S. Cadet Nurses of World War II. Louie had a cousin that served as a U.S. Cadet Nurse, and he knew they had bravely served our country. “They came off the farms, sometimes they had never worked outside the house before,” he said, with admiration in his voice. “They saved the healthcare system.”
Following a flurry of planning and fundraising, the memorial was soon completed, with a dedication ceremony held on July 19, 2018. In attendance at the ceremony was Marian Stellick Pavela, of La Crosse. The memorial features a statue in the likeness of Marian, who served as a U.S. Cadet Nurse during World War II. “She was a nurse for 30 years,” Louie said.
The La Crosse-Rebecca Myrick Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) donated a plaque. It reads: “In Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United States Cadet Nurse Corps 1943 to 1948, In Honor of All Who Served.” Other plaques tell the story of the Cadet Nurse Corps and applaud their role in the war.
Members of the DAR can often be found weeding at the memorials.
Hmong-Lao Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Though the last three years had been a whirlwind, Louie wasn’t done yet. For the fourth memorial, he wanted to honor the Hmong-Lao Vietnam Veterans. “I worked for over thirty years with the Hmong task force. I love the Hmong people a lot,” he shared. “They’re so humble and gracious.”
He wanted the memorial to inspire the Hmong youth and remind them of their history. And, to educate and remind Americans about the sacrifices the Hmong-Lao Veterans made. “They fought and died, they gave their life for America’s freedom. We should do something for those that gave their life,” he said.
This fourth memorial was soon completed and honored with a dedication ceremony in July 2019. “We had a big tent, a big celebration, food, dances…it was a beautiful occasion,” Louie recalled.
The memorial itself features a wooden archway atop two brick pillars. Perched atop the archway sit an eagle and an owl; between them traditional Hmong and Lao instruments. A brick path leads to statues in the likeness of Za Xa Vue and NaoTou Lor, La Crosse residents, and veterans of the Vietnam War that migrated to the US in the late 1970s. Garbed in military apparel, the statues stand vigilantly side-by-side atop a bold red base. Flags and landscaping rim the path around the statues. A plaque describes our “moral responsibility to build a memorial in memory of those in the jungle who did not make it to the United States and those that did make it.” A second plaque commemorates the dedication and recognizes donors.
World War II Memorial
The fifth memorial, added in 2021, honors World War II veterans. It was imagined and funded by Fern E. Hauser, a La Crosse native who grew up on French Island. Fern’s five brothers served in World War II, and the memorial is designed to honor the memory of all who served. Fern herself served our country through her work in the U.S. State Department, where she was employed for 21years.
Her estate paid for the entire project; Louie was tapped by Fern’s niece to plan and execute it. “They felt I was the only one that could do the job for the money they had,” Louie shared. At first, he wanted to decline; he was in poor health due to the return of his cancer and was spending a lot of time traveling to and from the hospital. He didn’t know how much time he had left. Ultimately, though, he agreed to help. “When they came I couldn’t say no because they already had the money. The hard part is raising the money!” he said.
He set a deadline to have the memorial completed and ready for a dedication ceremony in two and a half months. “Whenever I set a deadline, I make it no matter what,” he beamed. “Two and a half months is nearly impossible, but I made it. The statue wasn’t finished, but he [the sculptor] brought it anyway.”
The statue, created by local sculptor David Oswald, is made of fiberglass in the likeness of an infantry soldier. It stands on an eye-catching, vibrant blue platform.
Six stone pillars encircle the statue, and four of the pillars are etched with the insignia of a branch of the Armed Forces: The United States Marine Corps, the United States Army, the United States Navy, and the United States Coast Guard. A bench with the inscription “In Memory of Arthur H. Melby, Served in WWII, Major Army Air Corps” invites visitors to sit and reflect.
Louie described the dedication ceremony with joy. “It was a beautiful day, but very windy,” he said. “The dedication was packed, they came from all over.” At least two hundred people filled a large tent, including La Crosse’s Mayor, Mitch Renolds, and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind.
Vietnam War Memorial
Now, a new addition to Veterans Freedom Park is in progress: A Vietnam War Memorial. Louie helped fundraise for the memorial but had since taken a step back from being involved in the project. It will include a walkway, statues of soldiers, a curved wall with names of the 1,239 military personnel killed in action engraved on it, and flags.
Louie continued to care for the memorials at Veterans Freedom Park in the summer of 2021, even as he continued to age. He, along with others, was often found pulling weeds and trimming bushes, keeping the area tidy. “You feel close to God here,” he said, noting the gentle breeze and the splashes of light dancing across the leaves.
It is a peaceful place. Set back from the road, the memorials are quiet, and there’s plenty of parking, making it easily accessible. Visitors can stroll the walkways, pause before the monuments, admire the artwork and landscaping. Glimpses of the river and boat traffic are visible through the trees. A scattering of picnic tables provides places to sit and reflect, or, as Louie suggested, enjoy lunch or a cup of coffee.
Louie hoped that veterans, the families and friends of veterans, and others will travel to La Crosse to visit the memorials. They provide a special place to reflect, to give thanks, and to honor the memories of those who served.
Louie was a man with a heart genuinely filled with love. “I love America. I love La Crosse,” he said. That love is evident in how he spoke about the many friends he made along the way, and through the acts of service he performed his whole life over. “It’s nice to pass something down,” he reflected, “this will be here for 100 years!”
Though the memorials now belong to all, they are Louie’s legacy: a legacy of true love and honor.
Written by Sarah Arendt-Beyer, 2021