Community pays tribute to friend
June 04,2004

For more than two decades, Doris Downs has been there to support projects bringing together the civilian and military communities of Jacksonville. Two of those projects, the Beirut Memorial and the memorial Bradford pear trees along N.C. 24, have become local landmarks.

On Thursday, leaders of those communities were there for her, at her home, to honor her for her service.

"It's great to honor a lady who has loved Jacksonville, and that love has been manifested all over our town in our trees and the Beirut Memorial," Jacksonville Mayor Jan Slagle said. "Everywhere you look, you see her handiwork."

Slagle was joined by other city officials, Brig. Gen. Robert Dickerson, Camp Lejeune's commanding general, and representatives with the Montford Point Marine Association for the ceremony, which was held at Downs' home as she is battling cancer.

Thursday's ceremony included a presentation by Slagle declaring June 3 as Doris Downs' Day, and Dickerson presented Downs with a special thank you and an American flag flown over the memorial.

"Since October of 1983, you've selflessly given your time to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice," Dickerson said. "You've united the Marine and civilian communities, and we'd like to say thank you for everything."

Downs has been integral to developing the Memorial Tree Fund and Adopt-A-Highway, and through her leadership, Jacksonville has been awarded "Tree City USA" status from the National Arbor Day Foundation since 1980.

But perhaps her most memorable work has been the Beirut Memorial projects, which began on Oct. 23, 1983.

On that day, 241 Marines and sailors were killed when terrorists bombed a barracks in Beirut. Hours after receiving the news, Downs sprang into action. City Engineer Michael Ellzey remembers Downs calling the North Carolina Department of Transportation about a plan to honor the memory of the servicemen.

"She was serving as chairman of the tree board at the time, and she held a meeting that afternoon and got permission from the DOT to plant trees all along Lejeune Boulevard," he said.

More than 250 Bradford pear trees still line the road, and motorists in the city are treated to their beautiful, white blossoms every spring.

"She pushed it along and really set the whole thing up," Ellzey said.

By March, the remainder of the trees had been planted, but Downs wanted more for the families who had lost loved ones during the attack in Lebanon.

"She asked the base for a small piece of land to put a memorial on, and they turned around and gave her four and half acres," he said.

For two years, Downs worked to raise money to fund a memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Beirut bombing.

"She had put together about $150,000 by '86, but we still needed more," he said.

In January 1986, Downs formed a committee of local businessmen and by May had gleaned an additional $270,000. Ground was broken on the project later that year, and by 1988, the memorial was nearing completion.

"In 1990 she formed the Beirut Memorial Advisory Board and planned an annual observance on October 23," Ellzey said.

Last year, 1,500 gathered at the memorial at Camp Johnson to reflect and mourn.

"It's a real meaningful ceremony, and Doris has been the glue that's held it together," he said. "Through her actions, the families of those servicemen became a part of our family."

Among the accolades Downs received Thursday was a letter from retired Col. Tim Geraghty, the commanding officer of the Marines who were in the barracks at the time of the 1983 attack.

"Your legacy is already well established in our hearts," Geraghty said in his letter. "Thank you for being who you are."

Contact Christopher De Nittis at or at 353-1171, Ext. 239.