Year in Review: Doar trail brings history to life

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Editor's note: This story is part of a series recapping the top stories of 2017. Read the other top stories here. 

I first became aware of the legacy of New Richmond native son, John Doar, from a complete stranger in the parking lot of Family Fresh. I was asking my weekly Inquiring Reporter question about famous people. I wanted to know if folks had ever met someone famous. A gentleman shared with me the CliffsNotes version of the pivotal role attorney John Doar played in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and specifically in securing voting rights for black citizens in the south.

Last summer over the course of three days, Aug. 24-26, citizens of New Richmond joined family members and Doar’s colleagues from across the country in celebrating a legal career that become a legendary chapter in the battle for Civil Rights in the 1960’s American South.

The weekend’s events were the culmination of four years of preparation by family members working closely with City staff and friends in New Richmond. That weekend’s events included Freedom Summer, an exhibit at the Civic Center featuring photographs, texts and artifacts documenting the life and civic accomplishments of Doar; a showing of the award-winning film "Selma" in honor of Doar's participation in the historic 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.; and two discussion panels featuring first-hand accounts by distinguished colleagues of Doar's, lawyers and researchers who participated in the 1960's legal battles to secure voting rights for black citizens and who participated in the Nixon impeachment inquiry. Amongst the artifacts in the exhibit was the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to Doar by President Barack Obama in 2012.

For anyone who was a fan of history, the two panels hosted by Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College were unforgettable; history truly came to life. Featuring firsthand accounts by several prominent figures whose legal careers began as fresh-out-of-school lawyers hand picked to work with John Doar during the Civil Rights Movement, in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in the 1960s and members of Doar's legal team from the impeachment inquiry of President Richard Nixon, the discussions provided riveting tribute to the pursuit of justice. The conference room was standing room only for this once in a lifetime opportunity and it was more than worth the wait.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I listened to the account by Doar colleague, Robert "Bob" Moses, of a beating and imprisonment he endured as a student activist working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose mission was to register black voters in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. To hear the behind-the-scenes stories about securing the Nixon tapes, interviews with H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and building the case for impeachment in one of the most infamous chapters in American political history was spellbinding.

My respect and admiration for Doar grew with each new event that weeked. Every hand I shook brought me closer to an amazing life that began humbly in our backyard here in New Richmond.

Three days of activities culminated with the christening of the John Doar History Trail Saturday morning Aug. 26, 2017. In some way, the grey skies and persistent drizzle that morning reflected the solemn weight of what Doar shouldered and had worked so hard to accomplish. All the personal stories had managed to put faces and voices to the very real struggle of more than 50 years ago. Once again Moses spoke beneath the shelter of an umbrella; his  words made us all realize that the fight is not over. America is still not free for everyone.

Doar family members joined distinguished guests at the celebratory unveiling of the final interpretive panel signaling the grand opening of the John Doar History Trail. The trail consists of six interpretive panels narrating significant moments and accomplishments during the life of Doar. The panels are framed on limestone blocks paired with decorative benches and lighting surrounding the Mill Pond in downtown New Richmond.

As the audience disbanded and began to make its way around the mill pond stopping to carefully read each panel, snapping photos to remember the moment, I couldn’t help but think this was a really important moment for our community, an opportunity to recognize a true American hero and as a community to embrace the high ideals he dedicated his life to. The trail is there to inspire us, to remind us how big a difference one person can make.