The story behind Knoxville’s East Tennessee Veterans Memorial began in Normandy, France

Bill Felton’s 1990 trip to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France deeply moved him, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported in 2002. “His visit was so powerful, it instilled in him a determination to come back home and create a memorial honoring fallen veterans of East Tennessee,” the article states.

Felton died in 2011, according to the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association website, but he left behind a permanent legacy for Knoxville – and one that’s celebrated by the entire region.

Here’s a look at how the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial came to be established where it now stands at World’s Fair Park.

East Tennessee Veterans Memorial beginnings: ‘It was a labor of love’

Once Felton began taking the first steps on his project, there was no shortage of supporters. Retired News Sentinel senior writer Fred Brown and John Romeiser, at the time a professor at the University of Tennessee, joined Felton on the project, Romeiser told Knox News. Romeiser was previously the association’s board president, and now serves as its historian.

“We had a great discussion. We talked about forming a committee, an organization that would do research. We brought on veterans from World War II and more recent Vietnam – more recent then,” Romeiser said. “It just grew exponentially.”

“It was a labor of love for Bill Felton,” Romeiser added. “He just had that dream. …He was driven. Very good guy, big heart. I learned a lot from him.”

“We want all of the community to be a part of this,” Felton told the News Sentinel in 2003. As it turned out, that was very much the case. Several mayors, state and federal senators expressed support for the memorial, Romeiser said.

It took a few tries to get a final plan for the memorial in place. Initially, it was envisioned to go by the doughboy statue in front of the former Knoxville High School, the News Sentinel reported in 2002. Another proposal suggested a small park on Gay Street, according to Romeiser. The memorial’s eventual location was finalized in January 2006 when the city announced it was donating a portion of World’s Fair Park for the project.

Felton’s inspiration becomes a reality

The memorial, comprised of 32 granite monuments, a flag and bell tower, was constructed between the World’s Fair Park playground and the historic L&N station. Each granite slab displays about 220 names of East Tennesseans who died in military service since the beginning of World War I, according to the website.

Early on, Romeiser helped research the names listed on the memorial alongside Cynthia Tinker, who worked for the University of Tennessee’s Center for the Study of War and Society. “We were building this database. We had about 3000 names initially, and now we have over 6,000,” Romeiser said. “We’re still finding names.”

The memorial was dedicated on Nov. 15, 2008. “We had a lot of veterans there, of course. We had different people in uniform. Huge crowd, lot of dignitaries. It was remarkable,” Romeiser recalled.

The East Tennessee Veterans Memorial will hold its annual reading of the names event this Memorial Day, Monday, May 27, at 6 a.m. at the memorial.

Hayden Dunbar is the storyteller reporter. Email

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