Mesmerized onlookers watched as the large bronze bell was heated, molded, and eventually completed in a foundry on wheels at the Iowa State Fair. When finished, the Spirit of Iowa Tribute Bell was polished and ready to honor members of the U.S. military.
“It was an incredible experience and the most unique thing I’ve ever seen at the fair,” said retired Brig. Gen. Jodi Tymeson, head of the Iowa Department of Veteran Affairs, who watched the process from start to finish. “I know veterans of our state are proud someone took on this project to honor those who served our country.”
From its creation and debut at last month’s fair, the mobile bell will now travel across the state to patriotic ceremonies, concerts, sports, deployment send-offs, welcome home parades, and other events honoring veterans, project organizers said. It will play a key role in making veterans aware of the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund and raising money for the state-sponsored fund to help veterans with emergency financial needs, said Jeff Chavannes, military community programs manager for Wells Fargo in Des Moines, Iowa.
The tribute bell was the brainchild of Chavannes and fellow veteran Brian Eikenberry, a military retail program consultant for Wells Fargo — the lead sponsor of the project.
“Our goal is to take the bell to all kinds of events in Iowa, raise public awareness of the trust fund, and educate veterans about the assistance that is available if they are in need,” he said. “The bell will become a great community outreach platform for raising awareness and letting veterans tell their story.”
The making of the bell fulfilled several years of work by Chavannes and Eikenberry, who got the idea in 2014 after helping set up a one-day exhibit of America’s Freedom Bell — a tribute bell that sits on a frame built with beams from the World Trade Center.
Eikenberry recalled the effect the bell had on the crowd and the money it helped raise for disabled veterans nationwide.
“From the moment we pulled it out of the crate, it was like a magnet, drawing people from all over the fair,” he said. “At the first ring, everybody turned their heads. There were long lines of people who wanted to see the bell and ring it in honor of a veteran.”
The birth of a tribute bell
Inspired by his experience with America’s Freedom Bell, Chavannes decided Iowa should have its own bell to honor the state’s veterans. He and Eikenberry teamed up to make the idea a reality.
Through his research, Chavannes learned about The Verdin Company, the Cincinnati-based company that made America’s Freedom Bell and other cast bronze bells for venues all over the world. Several months later, he traveled to Cincinnati for a Wells Fargo NeighborhoodLIFT® housing assistance event and took a side trip to visit Verdin’s factory.
Learning about Verdin’s foundry on wheels — the only such foundry in the world — fueled the vision for the project, Chavannes said. He and Eikenberry developed a cost estimate and an action plan for the bell, sharing it with their bosses and other Wells Fargo leaders in Des Moines. Ultimately, they would pitch the project to Franklin Codel, head of the company’s Consumer Lending division.
“Last fall, all the pieces came together when we presented it to Franklin, who was immediately on board,” Chavannes said. “He suggested we reach out to all of the major corporations in Des Moines, get them to join us, and make this an event for the whole business community here.”
An ongoing commitment to veterans
Led by Wells Fargo, the project sponsors included six companies, one nonprofit, and a number of private donors who contributed to the creation of the $120,000 tribute bell, which was then donated to the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs. The agency will maintain the bell, coordinate its appearances across the state, and manage its already crowded calendar.
The Spirit of Iowa Tribute Bell project is part of Wells Fargo’s in-depth commitment to veterans, including contributions of more than $75 million since 2012 for housing, career transition programs, financial education, and home donations to veterans in need. In 2016, the company also committed $2 million over the next four years to Scholarship America to support education for veterans and their spouses.
“Jeff and Brian’s idea completely aligns with Wells Fargo’s support for veterans in the community,” Codel said. “I was really happy to work with them and support them in any way that I could.”
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said the tribute bell project was an excellent example of a public-private partnership for the greater good of the community.
“To Jeff and Brian, I want to thank you for the idea and the vision — and to Wells Fargo, who helped support that idea by really leading it and reaching out to other corporate sponsors so that we could make it a reality,” she said at the dedication of the bell.
‘Honoring his wishes’
With groups already lining up to use the tribute bell at their events, more veterans will inevitably find out about the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund and the assistance it offers, said Dan Gannon, chair of the Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs, which administers the fund.
“You’d be surprised how many veterans still don’t even know about it,” he said. “At the state fair alone, there was a huge number of people who watched the bell being made and learned about the trust fund. As a result, we’re certainly going to have many more veterans get the help they really need.”
As the bell was being created at the state fair, organizers invited members of Gold Star families who lost a loved one in service to contribute commemorative coins or other metal items to the foundry to be melted as part of the Tribute Bell.
Mirela Green of Des Moines said she donated a dog tag in memory of her late husband, U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. First Class Harry Garth Green, who died earlier this year.
“It was hard letting go of it,” she said. “But it feels amazing. It feels like I’m honoring his wishes.”