Brick by brick, Ernie O'Dell saw his dream materialize.
It happened earlier this year, when the major portion of The Redondo Beach Veterans Memorial was completed in , a lush landscape dotted with Moreton Bay fig trees and cypress pines.
The project had a lot of help from O'Dell's "buds"—as he calls members of the memorial task force who still "get down on their hands and knees in the dirt" to plant memorial bricks around the granite and stone monument.
How it all came about is part magic, part genius, part dedication—qualities that personify Ernie O'Dell, the U.S. Army veteran selected by Redondo Beach Patch for its Greatest Person series.
"This is one of those things where an idea comes out of your head," O'Dell said as he was preparing for Friday’s Veterans Day tribute in the park on Catalina Avenue that hugs the sea. "You just follow that idea, and it blossoms."
O’Dell, 68, conceived of a new memorial back in 1995, about the time he was elected Redondo Beach city treasurer. It took until Veterans Day 2010 to , a privilege assumed by Redondo Beach Mayor Mike Gin.
The grand staircase and stone chairs surrounding the five granite pyramids that represent the five branches of the U.S. military (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard) of this year. The star shape inside a pentagon is repeated in the memorial logo.
Those attending this year's , which will include pipes and drums and a barbecue, will see hundreds of memorial bricks embedded on the cement walkways, each purchased for $100 by a family or organization wanting to honor veterans and help pay for the $300,000+ memorial, which is still $70,000 in the red.
"We’ve sold 600 bricks," O’Dell said, indicating the clay blocks inscribed with the name of a veteran or family. Mayor Gin purchased one for his late father, William Min Gin, a WWII vet; O’Dell has purchased a dozen bricks and a stone chair. Selling everything from pyramids to plaques is the primary way the task force raises money.
But it is the names etched on bricks and plaques that mean the most, O’Dell said. "It’s not that we did it for us, we did it for them," he said. "People here ... a piece of their heart is here. That’s a wonderful thing."
The former Army helicopter crew chief, whose paternal regard for the memorial has him stooping to pick up litter, said he formed lifelong friendships during the project that began when he realized "the rotunda and grand entry way [to Veterans Park] didn’t lead anywhere."
Instead of providing access to the park, the Greek columns and stairs built as part of a city beautification project for the 1984 Olympics led to a retaining wall and iron railing. The incongruity of it all brought a smile to his face.
The original memorial, dedicated in 1932, was at the far side of the park, "very understated" and out of sight "unless you knew it was there," O’Dell said.
Aside from opening up the entry way and extending the staircase, the next logical thought was to build an appropriate memorial at the foot of the stairs, an idea O’Dell took to Parks and Recreation Director Greg Kind in 2003.
O’Dell remembers Kind asking him, "Can you just draw up a little concept of what you have in mind?"
What happened next blew Hind's socks off.
The city treasurer—the man responsible for generating tax revenues and investing Redondo’s $70 million to $80 million portfolio—produced a skilled rendering.
"He didn’t know I could draw," said an amused O’Dell, who studied automotive design at Los Angeles Art Center and once headed the art department at Hughes Aircraft Co.
Thus, the personable city treasurer with the easy smile and mellow manner evidenced the talent and technical expertise that has helped him navigate multiple career paths—from illustrator to cartoonist to bar owner to real estate investor.
Born in Southern Illinois, O’Dell moved west with his family, ending in the South Bay (first in Hermosa Beach and now in Redondo) in 1955 at age 12. He delivered papers for the South Bay Daily Breeze, was mechanically minded and liked cars. "I used to always draw them," said the man who learned early to rely on both sides of his brain.
Intending to become an automotive designer, he went to Art Center, which led to a job as an illustrator at Rockwell International. But it was O'Dell's "mechanical urge" that positioned him for work as a helicopter crew chief when he enlisted in the army in 1964.
"I was fortunate enough to be stationed in Germany, flying 4-star generals around while my buddies were being shot at in Vietnam," he said.
By 1979, he was working at Hughes Aircraft Co., setting up the art department. He sketched F-14s landing on aircraft carriers, designed manuals and drew cartoons, such as one for a Hughes blood bank drive, which pictured Dracula in line with Hughes employees, asking, "Is this the line for withdrawals?"
Ever ambitious, O’Dell took industrial relations courses, acquired his real estate license, and left Hughes to invest in properties, including a bar () on the and a luxury condo development on the Esplanade.
When the condo deal fell apart ("I lost my shirt," he said), O'Dell, a member of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce, accepted a job as chamber director. He held the position for 10 years before running for city treasurer, something O'Dell was reluctant to tackle—at first—due to "all the political nonsense."
But after passing it by his wife, Ann, a national account rep for SIGNA insurance, he decided to take her advice and "go for it," he said. (Married 21 years, the couple has two children, Erica, 17 and Tim, 15.) The treasurer job, which he has held for 16 years, turned out "great."
But aside from his family, the Redondo Beach Veterans Memorial is where O’Dell’s heart is.
Just ask Tom Lasser, the former Army helicopter pilot who recommended O'Dell for the Greatest Person distinction. Lasser, along with Dallas Covington (Army), and Larry Futrell (Navy) were helping O'Dell secure newly inscribed bricks around the memorial one day recently—the men’s camaraderie noisy and infectious.
"Ernie’s the brick artist, down here all the time doing stuff," Lasser said, brandishing a hammer, which he insisted was a prop. "I came here one day, and this guy was on his hands and knees, painting the stars and stripes [between the pyramids]."
Not only was O’Dell the "inspiration" behind the memorial, Lasser said, "he put a lot of passion into this—not only passion, but energy."
Back in 2003, O’Dell’s design, embellished with the five pyramids by the associate city engineer, Quong Dang, was estimated to cost $250,000. Although the city council unanimously approved the project, there were "budget constraints," O’Dell said. "It became a fundraising issue more than anything else."
Fortunately, "people came out of the woodwork ... in a good way," he said.
One was a crusty, wheelchair-bound ex-Marine, John Simpson, who became the leader of the Redondo Beach Veterans Memorial Task Force.
Speaking on behalf of the task force in 2008, Simpson vowed to match $50,000 allocated by the city and, with the help of Herb Masi (Army) and Peter Dabbieri (Navy), raised $65,000 in ten months.
"Really only about six or eight of us did the whole shebang," O’Dell said. "John Simpson was the chairman, Herb Masi (now the chairman) co-chaired and I was the conceptual design guy."
But it is Simpson, loved by all who knew him, who will be on the minds of many during Friday’s tribute. He , and a plaque with his name is forever part of the memorial.
"At least he lived to see it completed," O’Dell said, his voice filled with emotion. "I really miss him."
Describing the memorial as "a labor of love for everybody," O’Dell said. "All of us guys have really put our hearts into this. But think of the hundreds of people we’ve allowed to have a place here and a reason to visit."