On Aug. 26, nearly eight years after fanatical Islamists crashed hijacked passenger jets into the towers of the World Trade Center, the official 9/11 Memorial Preview Site opened in New York City. Visitors can purchase souvenirs, listen to recorded stories of the horror and the heroism of that day, and watch live video of construction underway on the Memorial, which planners hope to complete in two years, in time for the 10th anniversary of the attack. Meanwhile, on a wooded plot 15 minutes east of Athens, Georgia, Bob Hart’s 9/11 memorial has been bringing visitors to tears since the spring of 2002.
Hart’s memorial is a trail, not an edifice. The oval pathway that the artist and some of his friends cut curves nearly 300 yards through hardwoods and pines and shrubs near his home and studio.
Walking the trail, a visitor sees Hart’s stark, evocative folk-art installations representing each of the three 9/11 crash sites. Beautiful butterfly paintings by his friend Mary Padgelek and an arresting, wrought-iron sculpture by another Athens artist, Harold Rittenberry, suggest transcendent spirits and a world undeterred from the pursuit of human progress and peace. White letters painted by hand a green wooden box quote Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “Memory may be our most powerful weapon against fanaticism.”
And then there are the signposts. At regular intervals along the trail, there are tall, unpainted, 4×4 posts, each topped by a cluster of wooden slats, each slat bearing the name of a victim of the terrorist attacks. There are nearly 3,000 names. Standing among the signposts, turning and turning to see one and then another and another, a visitor is overwhelmed anew by the magnitude of the atrocity wrought that crisp, bright fall morning eight years ago.
Hart, now retired, was working in his office on the campus of the University of Georgia when the first tower was hit. He was director of information technology at UGA’s College of Education, and as the news got more horrible, more unimaginable, he took refuge in work. He recalls that his first impulse was to make sure that classrooms were getting the live TV feed.
He had no personal connection to any of the victims, but the urge to respond positively became undeniable when he and his wife, Nancy, took a previously booked trip to New York that October. “We saw a New York City like we had never seen before,” he said. “It was so quiet and subdued. Everywhere we went, especially by fire stations, there were flowers. The firemen were out talking to everybody. On the flight home, I just decided I needed to do something. So I said to Nancy, “Is it okay if I try to do a memorial on our property?’ She said let’s go ahead and do it.”
By early November, Hart was making prototypes of various installations he wanted to include and marking off a path on their woodsy, 18-acre property. He hoped to have the 9/11 memorial trail ready in time for the first anniversary of the attacks. It was done by spring. “A lot of people found out what I was doing and wanted to help,” he said. “We had some work days out here. People helped me do the names on the poles and set the poles in the ground.”
Other than a dubious mention in a travel book called “Weird Georgia” and a 2006 feature article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hart’s memorial trail has had little publicity. Nonetheless, hundreds of people have now walked the pathway, read the names, grieved. Among them are relatives of 9/11 casualties and folks from as far away as Alaska who heard about the trail by word of mouth or who stumbled onto the photographs and brief descriptions on Hart’s website.
Hart has always been careful not to make this project about him. He didn’t even have visitor log on the trail for the first five years. “Nancy kept telling me I needed to do that, and I said, ‘Well, Nance, if I do that, it almost looks like I’m sort of begging for compliments.’ She said she didn’t think so, that people would want to say something. So I put a book out about two years ago, and she, as always, was right. Some people put down heartfelt thanks. Some people make comments about how they were affected or who they knew. I’ve gone through two books out there now.”
On the first anniversary of the attacks, nearly 300 people, including politicians, drove out to Hart’s place to pay their respects and hear prayers and the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Other than the fifth anniversary gathering, the other annual remembrances have been more modest.
Hart said he won’t be staging another formal ceremony until the 10th anniversary in 2011. This Sept. 11, he has nothing planned. He will be home, however. And, as has been the case for nearly eight years now, his 9/11 memorial trail will be open. Anyone who wants to come out and walk and reflect is welcome. Directions can be found on his website, http://www.bobhartart.com.