Icons or eyesores? VDOT vows to replace roadside memorials

The small white cross surrounded by a wreath of faded flowers stands on the shoulder of the road. At another spot, someone has used black electrical tape to fasten a second cross to a tree, but that inconspicuous cross, its wood rotting, escapes the casual glance.

Some roadside memorials, like that one, exist almost anonymously. Only friends and family of the victims notice them. Other memorials grab your attention like neon signs.

Of Albemarle County's 10 or so memorials, the most elaborate– a large bed of flowers just south of the Greene County line– was constructed by Edward Deane when his wife and two grandchildren died at the spot on U.S. 29. [See sidebar.]

Along Route 20 south of Route 53, a memorial marks the place where a Monticello High School student, 16-year-old Holly Nash, died in 2000.

Another MHS student, Christopher Campbell, died on U.S. 29 south near Route 708 on January 10, 2003. A memorial has been erected there.

And there are memorials marking three deaths last year: where Erica Crenshaw, 23, died on U.S. 29 south of Route 692 on April 21; where 21-year-old Tyler Patterson died in a motorcycle accident September 17 on Route 810 a mile south of White Hall; and where 20-year-old Ian Henley was ejected from a flipped truck on Route 240 west of Crozet on November 4.

Crosses have been at a spot on Route 676 near the reservoir so long that neither VDOT nor local police remember whose death they memorialize.

The younger the victim, the more likely a memorial will appear. Most of the time, it's a simple cross with flowers, sometimes fresh, sometimes artificial. At holidays, ornamentation is often added to commemorate the season.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has no numbers on how many of these tributes to loved ones exist across the state.

"It's an issue in every county in the state," said VDOT spokesman Jim Jennings. Of the policy in place before last week's ruling, Jennings added, "Unless it was a safety issue, we tried not to impinge on them."

Fauquier County, an hour north of Charlottesville, has at least 15 such memorials. The most elaborate stands along Route 17 near the interchange with Interstate 66 at Marshall. Twenty-two-year old Jimmy Tyree died there in a motorcycle accident two years ago.

After visiting the accident scene, Susan Tyree, Jimmy's mother, vowed never to return. But then her son's friends planted a heart-shaped flowerbed on the hill overlooking the spot.

Tyree has since erected a shrine to her son there. She cuts the grass and decorates the site according to the season or holiday. Four pumpkins and a scarecrow adorned the spot last fall, along with a white cross, flowers, and a small pine tree. A tiny crucifix and a brown porcelain angel were hidden behind two hay bales. For Christmas, she placed a poinsettia and fake deer.

Tyree has adopted the stretch of highway as part of a Virginia Department of Transportation program and cleans the nearby roadside three times a year.

The 53-year-old Marshall woman figures she has spent "a lot more" than $1,000 on her son's roadside memorial.

"I don't want anyone to forget Jimmy," says Tyree, who gained permission from VDOT for the memorial. "He was totally my life. I lived and breathed for him."

The concept for roadside memorials can be traced to 19th century Hispanic culture, according to several websites. [See sidebar.]

VDOT spokesman Jim Jennings says he saw "huge memorials" 13 years ago during a trip to Santiago, Chile.

Since the time Jennings remembers first seeing roadside memorials in this area– along I-66 in the late 1980s or early '90s– the phenomenon has grown, with crosses, stuffed animals, and heartfelt messages placed at many fatal accident sites.

John Shifflett also has noticed the trend in roadside memorials. He's worked for VDOT for 30 years, and can list many of those in Albemarle County. "In my recollection, there are more now than I can ever remember," he says.

Such memorials have caused controversy in other places.

Two years ago, for instance, Oregon Department of Transportation officials sparked a debate about freedom of speech and religion when they removed crosses erected at a site where two teenagers died in an accident.

VDOT can remove anything– including the ubiquitous "popsicle" political and get-rich-quick signs– placed in its right-of-way, Jennings says. But he adds, "It's a completely different situation than the popsicle signs. You have to respect the families."

Last week, VDOT stunned the families when it announced that all these homemade memories are headed for the scrap bin.

VDOT says that religious symbols, flowers, and photos will be replaced with standardized state markers for which families can apply. Each will read "Drive Safely, In Memory Of ... " After two years, even the state markers would be removed and offered to the families.

"This is the bureaucratization of love," scolded Delegate Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) in the Washington Post. Marshall's son was killed in an auto accident along Interstate 81 in November 2001. Marshall told the Post he plans to ignore the new VDOT program. "I intend to put a cross up for my son. Period."

Even Governor Mark Warner first viewed the policy as "overly bureaucratic" says spokesperson Ellen Qualls, but the governor decided not to "micromanage" VDOT, Qualls says.

Unless VDOT's policy-making body– the Commonwealth Transportation Board– has a change of heart, the private memorials are doomed.

Legalities aside, some people wonder why families and friends would want such reminders.

After Albemarle High School student Brittany Bishop died last July on Earlysville Road, some of her friends erected a memorial near the reservoir bridge. Her mother, Kellie Bishop, tries not to drive that route.

"I've walked there, but I don't go that way usually," she says. Nor has her son wanted to go to the spot.

"For the kids who put it there, it gave them a sense of purpose when they didn't know what else to do," Bishop says.

She once saw a wreck occur near Dulles Airport. The next time she drove that way, a memorial adorned the site. "It reminds me of that wreck– and to take my foot off the gas pedal," she says.

Susan Tyree doesn't find her son's memorial a painful reminder.

"That's not where Jimmy died," she says. "That's where he went home to God."

Not only that, but his friends like the site, she says. They beep their car horns in salute each time they pass.

Kyle Glascock, a lifelong friend of Jimmy Tyree, laments the tragedy of his death and has helped keep up the Marshall memorial. While he believes Susan Tyree has done a tasteful job with the site, Glascock, 24, has reservations about roadside memorials in general.

"I ask myself that same question" about the worth of such memorials, he says. "I think there could be a more fitting memorial... But I've supported it. I still feel the pain that everyone's going through... It's kind of hard to disagree with anyone on something like that."

While Glascock thinks families of victims have a right to erect roadside memorials– as long as they present no hazards– other people believe such memorials do not belong near roads. Until July 1, when the new standardized marker policy takes effect, VDOT will remove a memorial only if it proves dangerous or if someone complains.

VDOT's Jennings has heard only scattered complaints– about the Deane memorial in Charlottesville and another in Stafford County. VDOT destroyed both of them.

Sometimes the memorials fall into disrepair when the bereaved mark the site of a tragedy "and then don't come back," Shifflett says. "If it looks untended," he says, "the mowers will pick up the litter while doing general maintenance."

VDOT resident engineer Bob Moore is quick to point out that the department has not "policed" roadside memorials "because of their sensitivity." However, last fall Moore received a complaint about a memorial at Routes 211 and 688 west of Warrenton– and VDOT must respond to such complaints, he says.

The Route 211 memorial– a wreath of silk flowers perched on a hill next to the highway– marks the spot where Brad Brooks, a former Fauquier High basketball star, died in an August 1996 accident.

The person who complained "felt it had been there long enough," Moore explains. "We looked into it to see if something could be worked out," such as planting flowers at the site.

Brooks' mother and stepfather, Sue and Jeff Fortuna, say they were "shocked" when Moore called them before Christmas.

"No one had ever said anything to us," Mrs. Fortuna says, glancing at the wreath as cars speed by. "As a matter of fact, they've said how nice it looks... We pass here every day. It's our way of showing our son we love him, we miss him."

She says the person who complained wanted the Fortunas to "move on" with their lives. "We've moved on," she says, "but we still love Brad."

Before her son's death, Mrs. Fortuna had noticed roadside memorials but didn't understand the pain behind the crosses and wreaths. Now she does.

"Losing a child is the worst thing you can go through. We were very, very close," she says.

Mrs. Fortuna wonders if the person who complained about the memorial has suffered a similar loss, "and they don't want to be reminded. And maybe every time they pass here, it reminds them."

Though her husband is angry, Mrs. Fortuna wants to avoid becoming bitter.

Still, she notes all the other signs– several real estate business placards stand near her son's memorial– that clutter the roadsides. She can't understand why someone targeted her son's memorial, considerably understated when compared with some of the others.

A mile from the memorial to Brad Brooks, two large crosses mark the spot where Brittany Ann Kmonk died in October 2001, for example.

A six-foot-tall white cross stands on the shoulder of Opal Road near that busy crossroads in Fauquier County. The name "LEE" is carved down the front of the cross.

Three miles from that marker is another very visible memorial, outside Pete's Park 'n' Eat on Route 29, where a white cross about four feet tall stands at the traffic signal next to the restaurant sign. The name Brock Walsh is written horizontally in sky-blue marker, and an 8-by-11-inch laminated photo is stapled to the cross. The 21-year-old died there in an August 1997 accident.

The memorial stands on the restaurant's property.

"It doesn't bother me," says Pete's owner, Maria Linardakis.

Walsh's mother asked if she could place the cross at the corner, Linardakis says. Few people talk about the memorial now, but it provoked lots of remarks five years ago.

"Somebody said, 'Why'd you let them put it up there?' " Linardakis recalls. "I said, 'What if it was your son?'"

Meanwhile, Jeff Fortuna says he's bitter that the small memorial to stepson Brad Brooks came down because of an anonymous complainer.

"We felt cheated anyway because he died early, and then for someone to pull this on us seems really unfair. Ours was tastefully done," he says.

Word last week of the new state program– with its provisions for official memorials standing for two years– offered little consolation to Brooks' stepfather.

"You're supposed to forget about your mother, father, son, or daughter in two years?" asks an incredulous Fortuna.

"That's what they're saying."

Scott Shenk is a staff writer at the Fauquier Citizen, which originally published this story. Additional reporting was provided by The Hook's Lisa Provence.