WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Lois Pope, heiress to the National Enquirer fortune, was a Broadway singer in the 1960s when she vowed to do something to help disabled veterans. On Sunday, she'll see that promise through with the opening of a Washington memorial she worked to get built.
Lois Pope, 81, says a 1960s visit to a New York hospital where Vietnam War veterans were recovering triggered her compassion for their struggle. She was performing for a charity program. As she sang "Somewhere" from "West Side Story," she reached out as she got to the line "Hold my hand and we're halfway there," but realized the man who lay on a gurney before her had no hand to hold.
"I was naive and pretty clueless about the devastation," she said, "clueless about the horrors."
Years later, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to place her hand on the name of a cousin who died, she said she found herself beside an amputee who struggled to place flowers near a friend's name. As she left, she asked a ranger where she could find a memorial to disabled veterans.
"He said there wasn't one," she said, "and that did it."
Pope managed to get the attention of Jesse Brown, the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary in the Clinton administration, who joined her cause and put her in touch with Art Wilson of the Disabled American Veterans organization. Together, they began the long process of getting the memorial approved and raising more than $80 million to get it built.
She gave $10 million of her own fortune — from her marriage to the late Generoso Pope Jr., who founded the National Enquirer — and raised millions more from others.
The result is a monument of glass walls and bronze sculptures, with a star-shaped fountain and ceremonial flame, all surrounded by a grove of trees near the Capitol. President Barack Obama is expected to attend Sunday's dedication.
Pope, who lives in the tony community of Manalapan, Florida, says the project is all about "thinking and thanking" — ensuring others aren't like she once was, clueless to the sacrifice veterans have made. She hopes the memorial's proximity to the Capitol will also inspire reflection among lawmakers.
"I want them to know the human cost of war," she said. "I want them to think twice."
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