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'Covered in dirt, tarnished, grimed': Momentum builds to restore memorial for fallen Portland firefighters

Supporters hope renovating the David Campbell memorial will properly respect its namesake and the 74 other Portland fire fighters who died line of duty deaths.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland is full of history. Many of the city’s landmarks tell the stories that shaped it. But with each new generation, some of that history has been lost, or simply ignored.

Take the David Campbell Memorial on Southwest 19th and Alder for example. On a recent spring afternoon, dozens of people walked by it without giving it so much as a glance. No one seemed to notice it. No one seemed to care. And with garbage and graffiti covering its cracked, dingy façade, certainly no one admired it.

Asked if they knew what who David Campbell even was, the answer from everyone asked, was “no.” When told he was one of Portland’s first fire chiefs and died in the line of duty, the response from most was surprise, followed by confusion at the memorial’s apparent neglect.

“Oh dang,” said one man. “It’s uh, it’s in rough shape.”

On June 26, 1911, Chief David Campbell and every firefighter in Portland responded to a massive fire at the Union Oil distributing plant. Campbell borrowed a turnout coat from one of his men to attack the fire from inside. A massive explosion blew off the roof. Chief Campbell never made it out.

After Campbell's death, 150,000 people lined the streets of Portland for his funeral procession, and they built the memorial.

“This memorial to him was built by the citizens of Portland, not by the firefighters of Portland,” said Portland Fire & Rescue historian Don Porth. “He was that special to the citizens.”

Porth spent 27 years with Portland Fire & Rescue. He’s dedicated his retirement to doing right by Campbell. For him, that means building support to restore and improve the small, triangle-shaped property. Every June, city officials and firefighters hold a small community ceremony at the memorial, honoring Campbell's great sacrifice. Then, it's back to ambiguity.

“It’s just ‘that thing’ they drive by and they're not really sure what it is,” said Porth.

There's also the matter of the now-75 Portland firefighters who have died in the line of duty or in duty-related deaths. Many of their names have been added to the floor of the memorial with little formality.

“If you walk up you'll see they're covered in dirt, tarnished, grimed and just really no interpretation of who those people were,” said Porth. “We would like to re-imagine this entire triangle by opening up this lower area as an open public plaza for public use.”

For Porth, the memorial sits at a critical intersection — one connecting the past, present and future.

“We just had our 75th line of duty death for Portland," said Porth. “A man by the name of Jerry Richardson.”

Richard spent 30 years as a firefighter, the majority of them in Portland. In November, 2021, Richardson died of lung cancer. The illness was brought on, doctors say, by years of fighting fires. Richardson’s wife Heather misses him every day.

“It's a big sacrifice that our family made,” said Heather Richardson. “He was only 56. That's young.”

Jerry Richardson’s sacrifice, and that of the 74 others are still waiting for a physical place in Portland where they can be honored. Heather Richardson hopes it can be at the corner of Southwest 19th and Alder.

“It would mean the world to me,” she said through tears. “It would be a good place for our family to come and for our grandkids to come and understand the hero he was for the citizens of Portland.”

The David Campbell Memorial Association is creating a budget for restoring the memorial and an architect is working on plans. They estimate the restoration will cost around $1.5 million to complete. They've already raised $232,000 in donations, nearly half coming from Portland firefighters themselves. They hope the city will cover the rest.

In a statement to KGW, Portland Fire Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty wrote:

“I enthusiastically support ongoing efforts to restore and improve the David Campbell Memorial for fallen firefighters. I directed my staff and all my bureaus to do everything they can to support this effort and they have been in regular contact with the leaders developing these plans. I’ve also had good conversations with my colleagues about providing funding for the memorial once a final plan is ready to go. I can’t wait to see what the final design will look like.”

With each step forward, current firefighters like Battalion Chief T.J. Lehnertz are encouraged.

“I think it's a way to take ownership and just a sense of pride. Make it something people would want to walk over and look at,” said Lenehertz. “It's abused, it's disrespected; it's something that represents Portland. It's not just about the fire service.”

This year's David Campbell Memorial Ceremony will take place on Monday, June 27 at 10:00 a.m. at the memorial located at Southwest 19th and Alder.

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