Cleveland City Councilman David May recently asked the school to take over the iconic garden spot as an extension of the school’s landscape along the east side of North Ocoee Street.
“Lee University’s campus always looks immaculate and I just thought it would be nice if the landscaping around the monument and the university were compatible,” he said.
“We’ve worked out a partnership in which Lee University will design, install and maintain the garden, but the city will pay for all the plants and shrubs.”
Taking over the landscaping was an easy decision for Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn, who remembers walking as a young boy past the statue and obelisk on his way to Arnold Elementary School in the early 1951 when the campus of a small Christian school was three blocks to the north.
The two monuments and flowerbed now border the campus of a much larger Christian university.
“We are happy to do this. It’s part of our being good neighbors,” he said Wednesday.
“We believe in curb appeal. We believe that grass, shrubbery and flowerbeds are important in setting a tone for the neighborhood and we’ve demonstrated we believe that in the way we’ve maintained our campus.
“We’ve invested a huge amount of money in underground sprinkling systems in flowerbeds, shrubbery and grassy areas. It has become kind of a signature of Lee University that we care what our grounds look like.”
He pointed out burying utility lines is another way the school has invested in improving its curb appeal.
“We’ve spent literally millions of dollars the last 20 years putting utilities underground around our campus in order to create a certain pleasant aesthetic feel,” he said.
Dr. Conn attended Arnold Memorial Elementary School in the first grade in fall of 1951 with two brothers and one sister. Phil was in fourth grade; Sarah in third; and Stephen, who was also in first grade.
“My parents were eager that their children (there were eventually 12 of us, all attending public schools) get the best possible education, so when they moved to Cleveland from Missouri, as young parents, they asked, ‘what is the best elementary school in town?’ They were told it was Arnold, so even though we lived near the railroad tracks in East Cleveland, we all began school at Arnold, walking together to school and back each day, crossing Ocoee Street at the monument.
“By the fall of 1952, my parents had begun to hear that the nearby neighborhood school, Mayfield, was academically every bit as good as Arnold, and decided that we could attend there with a much shorter walk and an equal education. So that’s what we dId. I entered Mayfield as a second-grader in 1952, and attended there for the next seven years, through eighth grade.”
But during his first year in public school, the three brothers and one sister walked westward along 8th Street. The children crossed the railroad tracks over which passenger trains ferried riders to and from the Southern Railway Depot a few blocks to the south on Edward Street in the Five Points area of Cleveland.
They crossed Church Street. Lee College was three blocks north on 11th Street. The school’s name was changed in 1947 and most people probably still thought of it as the Church of God Bible Training School. To the south along Church Street where it met Central Avenue, a cross and steeple towered high above First Baptist Church. Ahead of them, the two monuments stood where 8th Street intersected Broad and Ocoee streets.
“This was U.S. Highway 11,” Dr. Conn said, referring to the point where Ocoee and Broad streets merge. “Before the interstate, there was a vibrant downtown shopping district around the courthouse square. This was one of the busiest highways in the federal system. If you were traveling north or south, you came through here, so for a little boy 5 years old going to school in the first grade, crossing this wide road was a big deal.”
And, it was big deal for his parents who worried about their children’s safety as they crossed the busy highway. His older sister, Sarah, who was in the third grade, was given the responsibility of making sure he got safely across to and from school.
“They worried about our crossing this (U.S. Highway 11)) and their thing was when you go to school, you have to promise that when you get to the monument, you’ll hold hands and cross together,” he said.
“Since I was the smallest, my mother required me to cross Ocoee Street holding my sister Sarah’s hand. Mom would sometimes ask us, when we got home in the afternoon, if we had observed this rule.”
The obelisk was erected in the memory of Will Steed, Will Marshall and Jonathan Hardwick. The three young men were killed in a railroad wreck near Thatxton, Va., July 2, 1889, while en route to Europe.
According to the monument, “the body of Will Steed alone was recovered and interred in the city cemetery. This monument is erected in loving remembrance of the three by their associates and friends.”
The statue was erected in 1910 by the Jefferson Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy “to our known and unknown Confederate dead.”
Dr. Conn said all Clevelanders back then knew the monument as the focal point, much like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Trafalgar Square in London or Times Square in New York.
“There is some place that’s the center — the sort of cultural, geographic, social, psychological center of the town — and the monument was always that place,” he said.