What drove the 'mother' of the disabled vets memorial?

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial was the idea of Cheltenham native Lois Pope, who spent almost 20 years making it a reality.

Victory, they say, has 1,000 fathers, but the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington has one mother - a Cheltenham native whose horizons expanded in unexpected ways.

From the time she was little, Lois Berrodin, an outgoing, blue-eyed blonde, knew she wanted to be in show business.  

She achieved that dream when she was still a teenager, dropping out of Chestnut Hill College to study voice and drama in New York. In those struggling days she shared an apartment she furnished for $50 at the Salvation Army. “I remember standing on 57th Street, looking at those beautiful skyscrapers and wondering where my next meal would come from,” she says.

The lessons of thrift she learned then lasted a lifetime.

Now 83, she arrives for our interview wearing a windbreaker someone had given her and in the sneakers she had worn to the Oct. 5, 2014, dedication of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. She carries business cards and other papers in a plastic sandwich bag, saying it's better than a wallet.

The facts are simple: She got the idea for a memorial in 1995 and launched a campaign, despite government indifference and staggering fund-raising  issues. Her mission took just shy of 20 years.

Why she did it takes a little longer to explain.

We go back to her New York days, when she bested 500 other young actresses to become understudy to Florence Henderson, the female lead in a revival of Oklahoma! She eventually toured with the show and appeared in others.

When she was asked to sing for Vietnam veterans at New York’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center, she agreed, but was not prepared for men “who had no nostrils, no ears, blinded, bobbing on crutches,” bodies slashed, burned, broken.  

She felt faint, but pulled herself together as the pianist started to play “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

As she sang “Hold my hand and I’ll take you there," she reached her hand out to a young soldier on a litter, “but he didn’t have a hand,” she says, her eyes misting.

She struggled through the song, but promised herself that someday, somehow, she would do something for disabled vets.

Life interfered. She married a talent agent, George Wood, and had two children, putting her career on the shelf. Time passed. After Wood died, she married Generoso Pope Jr., owner of the National Enquirer.  

She had two more children and more time passed.

When Generoso died in 1988, Lois sold the Enquirer, and says she was stunned to get about $400 million for the scandal sheet.

In 1995, during a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington to honor a cousin who died in the war, she stood next to a wounded veteran in a wheelchair. “He was struggling to place a bouquet by his buddy’s name, and I looked into his eyes and was flashed back to that day so many years ago at Rusk,” says Lois.   

That’s when she decided four million disabled vets deserved a memorial on the National Mall.

She started by calling Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown to enlist his support. She could not get through, so she called the next day. And every day for the next five months, until Brown’s staff - either charmed or alarmed - put her through. She got Brown on board, but there were problems. Space on the mall is limited, and the government is wary about adding memorials and won’t pay for any.

The long, agonizing fight to fund and build the memorial - Lois is the single largest donor - is well documented. It is Lois Pope’s baby, but not her only adopted “child.”

She donates to the American Humane Association to reunite dogs who served in Afghanistan and Iraq with their military handlers. Her foundation provides $25,000 scholarships to deserving college students in New York, and funds summer camp for 15,000 underprivileged kids in Florida.

She now lives in Florida, but came to Philly for the screening at the National Constitution Center of a documentary she funded, VA: The Human Cost of War.

The film documents “the true cost of war through the enormous sacrifices and subsequent neglect" of veterans,  says Lois.

As the mother of the memorial, she’s lived the script.