Thirty years after conception of idea, Hands of Freedom tribute in Shawnee continues to honor military veterans

It’s been three decades since Dorothy and Maurice “Mac” McMullen came up with the idea to design and build a tribute honoring American military veterans. The messages that couple sought to share with the Hands of Freedom monument in Shawnee in 1989 remain true for them to this day.

With the wounds of the Vietnam War still fresh, Dorothy McMullen, who was serving as president of the Shawnee Area Chamber of Commerce at the time, felt compelled to do something to recognize the service of American military personnel.

Dorothy and Maurice ‘Mac’ McMullen

“It was just my desire to do something to honor our veterans,” she said.

So Dorothy turned to her husband, who was working as an architect at Black & Veatch. Maurice McMullen also served during the Korean War as a drill sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. The McMullens also remember doing their part as children during World War II, collecting grease and newspapers for their local Victory Club.

But things were different in 1989. One day, Dorothy recalls, a Vietnam War veteran in a wheelchair came into Shawnee State Bank, where she worked, to offer his help on the monument. The veteran told her a story about how a stranger approached him while he was waiting to cross the street near Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Some man said to him, ‘Vietnam?’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir,’” she said. “And he said, ‘Good enough for you,’ and walked away. That just broke my heart. Good enough that he ended up in a wheelchair.”

Designing the monument took a few months, while actual construction took nearly three years to complete. The chamber raised funds and the city passed a bond issue to pay for the project, which cost a couple hundred thousand dollars at the time.

“It’s a lot of hard work when you start doing sketch overlay after overlay of ideas,” McMullen said. “Your subconscious comes through and helps you out; you sleep on it a few months, some ideas come to you, they’re either good or bad.”

The monument depicts hands uplifting the world. The hands are designed as granite obelisks because McMullen wanted to ensure its durability. The world is made from bronze.

“My idea was we were really protecting the whole world,” he said. “So I got the idea, let’s see what we can do about holding the world aloft.”

The monument was dedicated in November 1992 in the Veterans’ Tribute Park at the southwest corner of Johnson Drive and Pflumm Road. It continues to stand as a tribute honoring all American military veterans, living or deceased, who served during war or peace time.

“Veterans are esteemed today; they’re being loved,” Maurice McMullen said, noting a change from the Vietnam era. “Everyone says thank you for your service. Totally different. Don’t ask me why. I have no idea if this affected anything at all.”

Every year, the city of Shawnee hosts Veterans Day celebrations at the tribute or in the nearby civics centre.

“I think it’s a wonderful tribute to the veterans and for all who don’t know about it, I wish they would come to the Veterans Day celebrations in November,” Dorothy McMullen said.