National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW): The VDOT Workers’ Memorial

The April 2004 issue of Focus, a newsletter published by the Federal Highway Administration, highlighted various scheduled activities across the country for that year’s National Work Zone Awareness Week (NWZAW). In describing how the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) would use the week to promote the need to drive more safely through highway construction areas, Focus mentioned that agency’s plans to hold related press conferences throughout the state; distribute traffic safety information at all rest area; and – along with the Virginia Road and Transportation Builders Association (VRTBA) – conduct work zone awareness training for high school driver education classes.

That article in Focus also mentioned a VDOT initiative concerning work zone awareness that went well beyond NWZAW only: ongoing efforts to build a VDOT Workers’ Memorial commemorating highway workers in the Old Dominion who have been killed on the job. The location selected for this memorial was an area just off Interstate 64 (I-64) and near Afton Mountain in central Virginia. This site was chosen for the memorial not only due to its scenic beauty and the fact that VDOT owns that land but also because that overlook is readily accessible to the public via I-64 and other major highways in the region.

Construction on the VDOT Workers’ Memorial began in July 2004. The memorial – measuring about 10 feet (3.1 meters) in height and 13 feet (4 meters) in length — was officially dedicated on September 17 of that year.

Those taking the lead on the creation of this memorial included David Rush, work zone safety program manager for VDOT, and several colleagues who collaborated with him in coming up with plans for the development and financing of the monument. Philip Shucet, who served as VDOT commissioner from 2002 to 2005, underscored the high priority given to this monument in an interview with Construction Equipment Guide during the fall of 2003. “We owe it to our employees and friends who gave the ultimate sacrifice doing their jobs to honor them with a memorial that truly comes from the heart,” Shucet said. “Their work is done but they certainly will not be forgotten.”

The design for the VDOT Workers’ Memorial was selected from a total of 41 entries. VDOT design engineer Harry Lee and his daughter Stephanie, a studio arts major at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, submitted the winning entry. Harry Lee, who had started his career with the Virginia Department of Highways (a predecessor of VDOT) in 1956 as an engineering draughtsman aide, took time during a 2006 interview for the agency’s Bulletin newsletter to call the development of the VDOT Workers’ Memorial “an amazing effort by a very large number of employees” and identify the completion of the monument as his most satisfactory professional achievement.

As designed by the Lees, the VDOT Workers’ Memorial features profiles of three employees who are all wearing hard hats. These profiles have been cut into black, white, and gray granite to represent the diversity of VDOT’s workforce. In addition, an “open profile” at the right end of the memorial is meant to signify workers who have lost their lives in highway construction areas. The names of those employees have been etched on the surface of the memorial.

The grounds surrounding the VDOT Workers’ Memorial include trees, a walkway, and a native perennial wildflower bed. This topographical layout was developed by Scott Johnson, a VDOT wildflower program and landscape design manager.

No public funds were used to build the VDOT Workers’ Memorial. The financing for it instead came from donations from VDOT employees and retirees, family members, and various organizations and businesses throughout the state. One of those who helped raise funds for building the memorial was Pam Kida. She is the founder of Pathways of Virginia, an organization that promotes the importance of highway safety. Mrs. Kida is the widow of Alan Rotach, a VDOT employee who was killed along Interstate 295 in 1993.

In the time since its dedication, the VDOT Workers’ Memorial has become a regular gathering place for NWZAW commemorations. The first of these ceremonies was held on April 4, 2005. The NWZAW event that took place in 2017 was especially notable because it included the addition of the name of an employee who had lost his life nearly six decades earlier. This person was Robert James Butler, who was working as a highway foreman on October 23, 1959, when a vehicle struck and killed him after speeding through a wooden barricade. As confirmed by VDOT, the driver of that vehicle had been trying to pass slower traffic. Butler was 66 years old at the time of his untimely death.

“This tragedy, even many years later, emphasizes the dangers VDOT workers face on Virginia’s roads each day,” noted VDOT district engineer Bart Thrasher during the 2017 ceremony.  “We are grateful and humbled to honor Mr. Butler’s sacrifice and the legacy he leaves.”

Charles Kilpatrick, who served as VDOT commissioner from 2014 to 2018, also used the occasion to both honor Butler and emphasize the urgent need for increased safety for those working on the state’s highways.  “The VDOT Workers’ Memorial and the addition of Mr. Butler’s name are a sobering reminder that the victims of work zone crashes are not just statistics,” says VDOT Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick. “We continue to make work zone safety our priority every day. We owe it to the names on the Workers’ Memorial and to all of our hardworking contractors and employees.”

Photo Credit: rachaelvoorhees (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

For more information on the VDOT Workers’ Memorial, please check out https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=26332 and https://www.virginiadot.org/about/is-worker-memorial.asp

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