Bridge dedication was cooperative effort

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

By Scott Meyer

I find myself speechless after the wonderful opening of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. Those who know me may indicate that, although I won't make a long attempt at trying to express what I feel, being speechless is rather rare.

The opening was the culmination of decades of work that led to the realization of a dream. When you build a long-span bridge, the planning, design and construction all look toward a point where the span will come together. Finally, the day comes when the last piece of steel is secured in place with all that came before it. It isn't that the last piece is any more important than the others, but it is a milestone that celebrates the entire structure coming together. The recent celebration was very similar. It was the coming together for the bridge, the people of the region and the celebration of the bridge's namesake, U.S. Rep. Bill Emerson.

So much has been said about Bill Emerson and I won't try to add anything more, but I do have a true story that happened just a few moments before the dedication ceremony began. I was visiting with Lloyd Smith, chief of staff for both Bill and Jo Ann Emerson, about how delighted we were with the weather and how perhaps Bill had lobbied the powers of Heaven for the winter weather to hold off for this day.

Thinking that I was going to be cute, I whispered in Lloyd's ear, "The only thing that makes me nervous is what did Bill give up in this deal?"

Always a step ahead of me, Lloyd looked me in the eye and with that patented grin of his said, "You know that mansion you had in mind? Mine is still reserved, but I'm not sure about yours!"

The 40-member bistate Emerson Bridge steering committee chaired by John Mehner of the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce had vision for this event about two years ago. They saw the celebration as more than a single-day event. I believe the buildup of associated events was key to ensuring opening day was all that it was. Scores of volunteers came together to prepare for the dedication.

Contests involving all aspects of Southeast Missouri life encouraged many different segments of the community to be involved and build enthusiasm for the project. Children and young adults were involved by writing about, drawing or building bridges. A pageant connecting the nostalgia of former bridge queens from 1928 with today's young women was also held. Those with flare for the artistic were encouraged to participate with photography and songwriting events. Rodger Dale Pritchett's winning song, "A Strong Handshake," became what many have called the signature of the ceremony and that whole opening day.

The floodwall mural of Bill Emerson featuring the old and new bridges was unveiled on the downtown riverfront. An appreciation dinner, hosted by the chamber, was held to honor the workers on the new bridge as well as those who have worked hard to keep the old bridge open and safe. The chamber also quickly completed a fund-raising campaign for the local share of the cost of the 140 aesthetic lights on the bridge. The steering committee got into the act of raising money for the opening ceremonies by selling chances for a piece of the old bridge, to push the button to demolish the old bridge and other prizes.

On opening day, a remarkable commemorative book was offered for sale by the Southeast Missourian. The U.S. Postal Service provided a commemorative stamp cancellation. CS Printing offered its official Emerson inaugural items for sale. We also had 750 participants in the bike, run and walking events plus people with the antique cars, bands and Clydesdales to help with the inaugural drive of dignitaries across the bridge. Roughly 3,000 people from around the bistate area participated in the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts bridging procession. The Marines presented the colors and silently reminded us that there were other things going on in the world that were a lot more important than our ceremony.

Special guests for the day were our 100 Diamond Club members who were at the opening of the old bridge 75 years ago. I personally enjoyed visiting with some of these folks about their experiences during the bridge opening in 1928.

There is so much more I could say about the opening, but somehow I think the fact that I was left speechless is getting harder for everyone to believe.

What I really want to leave everyone with is a sincere thank you. All these different aspects didn't just happen. They took many people over a two-year period to plan, organize, champion and then implement. Everyone who had a part, from those who just came out to be a part of a historical event to those who were on the numerous committees and coordinated events, excitedly joined together on the endeavor. This coming together is the key to the success of the whole enthusiasm building process over the last two years and ultimately the day of celebration.

Just as the people who put the last piece of steel in are not any more or less important than those who worked underneath the river where no one could see their work, each part was and remains a critical link. We honor each of you for making opening day one of our finest hours. I will never forget your support, your patience and your kind words. You each know what you did and how you got it done.

All I can think to say is as the songwriter Rodger Dale Pritchett said in "A Strong Handshake":

"Way to go."

Thank you, and happy holidays.

Scott Meyer is the Southeast District engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

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